Book Review: The Lace Reader

Barry's The Lace Reader (The Lace Reader: A Novel by Brunonia Barry (Paperback - Aug. 18, 2009)) - Brunonia Barry

Book: The Lace Reader


Author:Brunonia Barry




Summary (from back of Harper edition):Towner Whitney, the self-confessed unreliable narrator, hails from a family of Salem women who can read the future in the patterns in lace, and who have guarded a history of secrets going back generations. Now the disappearance of two women is bringing Towner back home to Salem - and is bringing to light the shocking truth about the death of her twin sister.-Harper, 2006.



One of the many reasons as to why I picked up this novel was because I am from Massachusetts - northeastern Massachusetts to be exact. I have visited Salem, MA many, many times and knowing the setting brings a certain nostalgia and personal insight to the book. As you all know, if you've read the rest of my book reviews, that I love mysteries. The promise of a supernatural element with the "lace reading" was another treat that I looked forward to and so, when I picked the novel up, I was eager to dive in.


Let me be completely honest with you. The summary on the back of the book is just as unreliable as the narrator. I will be as spoiler free as possible.


The one true thing about this novel is that the narrator is completely and totally unreliable. You can only trust Towner Whitney so much. To balance her, we are given a police officer who harbors a crush on Towner to see through his eyes. His parts are written in third person, whereas Towner's are written in first person. You can trust the police officer because he's factual and relies on his instincts, whereas Towner is more reflective and chooses to communicate in symbols.


The story takes place primarily in Salem. Towner comes back to Salem because her grandmother (at least she refers to her as her grandmother), Eva, has gone missing. Here, Towner is forced to confront the problems of her past - more specifically, her late teens - and eventually come to accept them, all while finding out more about herself and the people around her. She must examine the issue of her twin sister committing suicide, the abusive father turned self-appointed minister who acts as the main villain, and examine her past relationships with her loved ones.


Towner only has a mother, May, and a brother, whom she calls Beezer. Beezer is only around for the first quarter of the novel and in certain flashbacks. May is more of the anti-hero of the novel, a woman who chooses to remain secluded on Yellow Dog Island. Yellow Dog Island is off the coast of Salem, where May and her women are the only inhabitants. May uses the island as a shelter for abused and beaten women, even those who are left pregnant with the babies of their abusers. She teaches them how to weave lace, a tradition which Towner's family is known for.


Towner's family is also known for being able to "read" lace, a psychic ability which allows them to see the future - kind of like Tarot cards only with more focus on the person who's "reading" the lace. The ability isn't used or explained much in the novel. Barry uses the beginning of each chapter to slowly explain how to read lace under the guise of a guide written by Eva. Eva is the "mystic" of the whole novel. She's the psychic whom everyone turns to and seeks advice and wisdom. From what you learn of her, she sounds like a fun, interesting, and quirky woman - someone who might remind you of your own grandmother. But she doesn't play a very noticeable role. She is present in the small details and the memories of Towner. I feel that though she was used well enough for her own purposes, she was a very underdeveloped character. I would've liked to have known more about her.


The hook for the story is the "secrets" that Towner's family guards and the circumstances surrounding the twin sister's death. Well, there are no real "secrets" that Towner's family is hiding and the circumstances surrounding her sister's death aren't made clear until the very end of the novel. Though the mystery is ever present in the background, it's more of a reflection and resolution of Towner's life. She has been deeply hurt and psychologically traumatized by the events of her past and she needs to face them, accept them, and move on.


The story is interesting in its own ways, just not in the ways in which it is advertised. It's less mystery, more self-reflection. There's hardly any supernatural elements (There's little to no lace reading) and the mystery is more crime related than anything else. It hooks you in slowly and it keeps you interested, but not for the reasons that you would think. It's a personal journey and one that is certainly unique in its composition. Barry writes well and her prose is good; the hook to her story is just very misleading.


Overall, I give The Lace Reader a B+




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