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Saturday, October 23, 2010

BPL Book Discussion: The Lace Reader

The Lace Reader: A NovelOn Monday, our group met to discuss The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry. Here is the official plot summary:
Towner Whitney, the self-confessed unreliable narrator of The Lace Reader, 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, but the disappearance of two women brings Towner home to Salem and the truth about the death of her twin sister to light.

The Lace Reader is a mesmerizing tale that spirals into a world of secrets, confused identities, lies, and half-truths in which the reader quickly finds it's nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction, but as Towner Whitney points out early on in the novel, "There are no accidents."
Now to the discussion.
  • Only 2 people really liked the novel, while 1 did not and the rest (10) were so-so.  One of the "likes" said she enjoyed how the book had, "a little bit of everything." She enjoyed how you never knew what was going to happen and it moved right along.  This led the "dislike" person to chime in that these were all the reasons she did not like it.
  • The so-so's all agreed that they enjoyed the book as they read it, but once they finished, they felt there were too many shades of gray, and didn't not see the overall point.
  • Towner: Everyone liked Towner, even though she tells the reader that she is a liar on the first page. Towner's redemption; her final ability to overcome her severe mental illness after years of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her father, was the point of the book. We were all rooting for Towner.
  • The problems we had with the book stem from the fact that everything was so unclear. The book is unsettling and confusing because we are seeing most things through Towner's eyes. She is unsettled and confused. The author is trying to make us feel like Towner, we decided.  However, everything felt too purposely concealed and confused.
  • The idea of perception versus reality was huge in this novel. We talked about how we confront this in our lives all of the time. Towner had a very difficult time making these distinctions, which made it hard for us, the readers to do it too. This unsteady feeling made our group uncomfortable. We agreed that we were supposed to fell this way, but we felt it did not work in the end, since we felt the conclusion was not "worth it." We all felt left down by the "climax" of the story.
  • We all loved the magical Salem setting. It enhanced the mysticism in the story. We liked the use of islands and the sea, and the historical undertones of the novel. Eva's house and the various mystical places in town added to the ambiance.
  • Eva: we grew to like Eva throughout the book, but many of us we disappointed in her choice to kill herself in order to save Towner from her downward spiral of mental illness.We did not find this consistent with what we had learned about Eva. She seemed liked she was too helpful a person, someone who truly wanted to help every lost soul, to give up her work and her life for one person.
  • Lace: we obviously talked a lot about lace. Here is a list of some of the things we talked about in regards to lace and the novel.
    • Lace is a symbol of confusion and life's tangles.
    • This book is written like a piece of lace. It is intricate and interesting, but it is also hard to find order in it.
    • We talked about lace's place in history, family lace, and the art of fine crafts. I had participants share their family craft histories. People talked about lace in their own homes and what they used it for. We wondered if with women working more that these skilled crafts have gotten lost. We decided that this is not the case. Many people shared stories of young people continuing the traditions. We talked about the knitting and crocheting group that meets at the library. This was the most dynamic portion of our discussion.
    • We also talked about the group of abused women who live on the island with May making lace. We all enjoyed this part of the story and wished we had more detail about their lives and work. Their lace sounded beautiful. We also liked how these broken women were taught a beautiful skill, worked in a supportive "circle," buidingt self-esteem. They brought beauty back into their own lives. Towner was confused by May's dedication to these women, and hurt by the attention May gave them, but we thought May did this work because she had tried to help her abused sister and niece, but they always went back to their abuser. She needed to help someone.
  • We talked about the excerpts from "The Lace Reader's Guide," at the beginning of each chapter.  We agreed that as we read the book, the excerpts made no sense, but if you went back and looked at them after finishing the chapter, then you could see that they give us clues into the story.  We spent the most time analyzing the excerpt at the start of Chapter 15. This quote basically says you need to find the still point and the center of a piece of lace if you want to start reading it.  It also says that in lace, past, present, and future are all happening together. This led us to a discussion of looking at the book the same way. If we start in the "center," which I suggested were Towner's journals from her time in the mental hospital, and then worked our way outward, the story came together better; it was easier to "read" this way. However, we also decided that we didn't think liked the idea of reading a book from the middle outward and letting past, present, and future all exists at the same time.  We got the point, but were not impressed.
  • The nice cop, Rafferty came up in discussion but we were worried that he would eventually get taken down by the bad karma of Towner and her family.
  • We didn't spend much time taking about Cal and his religious cult. It bothered us. They were so evil and morally wrong that we did not want to waste our breath. I asked what this book said about religion and spirituality. We felt the most religious character was Rafferty and his kindness did lead to Towner's ultimate redemption. We found May and Ann very spiritual too. We also wished that the kindly reverend at the beginning of the novel, "got more screen time." We all liked him and his relationship with Eva. We wished he stayed in the novel longer.
  • We ended with everyone throwing out single words to describe this book: confusing, strange, unusual, fractious, depressing, lace, mosaic. One participant said she felt like the novel was made up of many metal fragments and we needed a magnet to put it together. 
Overall, we did not really like this book, but our discussion was long and interesting. We focused on what we thought the author was trying to do first, a then thought about whether or not it was successful second. So, this book was a great example of how you do not have to "like" a book for it to make for an interesting discussion. Many of us thought that Barry's ideas were good, but that she needed to get more novels under her belt. A few are going to try her second novel, which reviews say is better.

Overall, I think this book would be good for a group that is interested in crafts, history, and mental illness. One participant said she did think the book was one of the best she read in terms of looking at mental illness from inside the sufferer's head.

Readalikes: The confusion which this novel creates reminded us of last month's title, Await Your Reply, but we all agreed, we thought Chaon's book was executed better.  A few of us were also struck by The Lace Reader's similarity to The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Again, we enjoyed the latter better.

I would also suggest The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve for its focus on the water, mystery, and a mentally fragile female narrator and Her Fearful Symmetry with its focus on twins and mental illness.

Readers may also want to read more books about Salem or Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables.

Next month we will tackle, Little Bee by Chris Cleave.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this review. I just finished The Lace Reader and felt confused and let down at the end. I agree with much of the review you shared.