Like seaweed silently swaying just below the water's surface, Brundage's novel gently ensnares us. The author sets her icy mystery in
1979 in Chosen, New York, a town that is irrevocably changing. It is the summer's end, when the season's fleeting pleasures have blown away, revealing the fractured and fractious year-round community that remains behind when the casual visitors have returned to the relative safety of New York City.
College art history lecturer George Clare and his young wife, Catherine, have decided to stay, having just bought the Hale family farm. The three Hale boys--Eddy, Cole, and Wade--are still reeling from the suicide of their parents and lamenting the fact that their farm, just one of many in the area, has steadily gone broke. Now forced to live with their uncle in the center of town, Cole in particular looks back at the farmhouse and mourns the arrival of this young, cosmopolitan couple from the city. Cole is learning to get along, but the farmhouse is always on his mind.
In the months that follow, Cole and Catherine Clare form a connection of sorts, with Cole occasionally minding Franny, George and Catherine’s baby daughter. Cole remains,
however, decidedly more ambivalent toward George, a diffident, inapproachable man who seems to perfectly straddle the divide between the friendly and sinister. When Catherine is found brutally murdered, George’s questionable morality and his murky past immediately raise questions. At first robbery is considered, but nothing in the house was stolen. George maintains that he has no enemies even as he tells Travis Lawton, the town sheriff, that everyone loved his wife. With George the prime suspect, it doesn't take long for Lawton and the rest of Chosen to point the finger in his direction. George ignores Lawton’s demands for interviews, whisked away by his parents to the safety of the
Even as George alleges that the intimate details of his marriage are “nobody’s business,” Brundage gradually releases a treasure trove of George and Catherine’s innumerable secrets. From a cold, white sky
and a landscape perpetually drained of color to the crumbling house on Old Farm road, we are at first sympathetic to George, and we initially believe his entreaties that “he got what he deserved” for not protecting Catherine. Yet as George’s story unfolds, we begin to see a marriage that is often odds with itself and a couple who have become bitter enemies: “She can feel his hatred of her. His wanting something, his planning something.”
Strafing through the story is the notion that the Clares' farmhouse seems tainted. From those first months, Catherine feels a flourishing chill and a lingering, oppressive gloom as if the whole house has been covered “like a birdcage with velvet cloth.” Brundage unfurls a heartbreaking account of a woman fighting to hold onto her eroding identity as a woman and as a mother. From the first muted years of depression and George’s subtle carefully calibrated abuse to the absence of hope, Catherine reveals to us in her shattered and delicate voice her unplanned pregnancy, her hasty marriage, and how as the years
have passed, she has begun to hate her husband’s “icy indifference and his mindless treachery.”
Shifting among a number of her characters’ perspectives, Brundage peeks through the curtains and into the dark geography of the human heart. This is a world where mothers raise their daughters to be good wives and “to make the best of things.” At first, Catherine buys into this with “a greedy, childish ease,”
something not lost on local realtor Mary Lawton, who from the outset distrusts the arrogant, misogynistic George. Like Catherine, Mary has a foot in both worlds, able to engage with the locals and overblown artists alike, especially the Clares' neighbors, Justine and Bram, city transplants who have taken with gusto to country life. Justine teaches with George at the local college, yet it’s Justine’s encouragement of Catherine’s feminist rebelliousness that most disturbs George and precipitates the animosity that will follow.
George may be manipulating Catherine, but Catherine has her own agenda. Fuelled by a shimmering unease, her realization of George’s true nature
sets us up for the devastating finale, taking us to a place where hidden horrors
lurk in the shadows and murder is twisted into misshapen loyalty. As though in a waking nightmare, Bundage's complex, beautiful, and sinister work extricates the notion that the lies we tell ourselves can be even more devastating than those we tell others.