This astounding first novel by Brunonia Barry proves to this reviewer that you should never start reading a book with preconceived perspectives or expectations. The Lace Reader is so unusual and so beautifully written that it blows you away. Check all your ideas, opinions, and preconceptions at the door, and open the covers of this book with an open mind and open heart.
The women in this story - and it is a story of women, are eccentric, exotic, courageous, damaged, yet vibrantly living. The layered nuances of the book pull the reader deeper and deeper into their world, and into the world of Salem, Massachusetts. The novel pulls no punches, and the language weaves a witch-like spell that propels us into the bizarre and unusual Whitney family.
Each piece of history and character is woven together with slender, almost invisible threads, as is the lace that the author uses as inspiration. Each chapter heading is taken from an imaginary book called “The Lace Reader’s Guide” and gives us not only history and glimpses of the past world of women’s handiwork but is an impetus to understanding the characters within.
Towner Whitney is a woman of many parts. Born into the larger-than-life Whitney clan, she has struggled over the years with herself, her mother, May, and her step-grandmother, Eva, as well as her twin sister. Her only escape had to be taking off for California, and a new life and persona. There she stays, doing her best to forget the past and the ties that bind. Only the unexpected disappearance of Eva forces her homeward, where she must once again face the women of her family and the men who have affected them. Her mother lives on the island Towner (nee Sophya) grew up on and from which she thought she had escaped – Yellow Dog Island. Eva’s house, a remarkable multi-storied edifice with a widow’s-walk, is in downtown Salem. The town itself has grown and changed since its historical and hysterical roots in the time of the witch burnings. Salem prides itself on its even temperament and tolerance these days. Being forced by circumstances to return to the scenes of her childhood and young adulthood is phenomenally hard for Towner. The whys and wherefores of these difficulties are what tale-spinner Barry brings to fruition.
It is said that a vision (which sparked this book) came to writer Brunonia Barry in a dream, a dream of prophecy read in a piece of lace. Much like the dynamic movie The Sixth Sense, the story is filled with clues and imagery that can slip through our fingers if we don’t pay attention. The backstory of lace making and lace reading is unusual and compelling. Ipswich lace itself has a long and remarkable history. From around 1750 to the 1840s, women all over the town of Ipswich, MA, were deeply occupied in creating and supporting the only flourishing viable creation of handmade bobbin lace in the U.S, a venture that prospered for nearly a century before the introduction of machine-made lace destabilized their hard work and the originality of their handiwork. In Barry’s story, Eva and May have both tried to inspire modern interest in the ages-old art, and one of Towner’s gifts of inheritance is the lace-making pillow that belonged to Eva. However, along with struggling with the death of her twin sister decades ago and the trauma of returning home to her beloved Eva’s status as “missing,” Towner has to figure out how to come to terms with her past and its impact on her future. As her brother has long said, “We’re from five generations of crazy...” and Towner is definitely living proof.
One of the intricacies of Towner’s insanity is grasping what is real and what is not. She has the streak of psychic abilities that pervades her family of women. As she works with local detective Rafferty to discover what has happened to Eva, she is haunted, both figuratively and physically, by phantoms. Her odyssey into the light and into the painful reality of her circumstances, is surrounded by her experiences with those she loves and those she hates. The book deals with some painful truths: incest, sexual abuse, mental illness, cultism, and the inter-personal family connections that are too strong for resistance. Throughout it all, the lace reading (and making) provides an underpinning of history and tools for Towner to use in self-discovery.
The ending is so astounding and so unexpected that you will want this book to reside on your shelves for later rereading. Towner’s breakthroughs become our own, and as she learns to appreciate her strengths and understand her weaknesses, we too are enriched in hope and in spirit. One of the best books this reviewer has ever read, it is recommended particularly for women, young and old, who want resolution and peace with their pasts.