Ballantine, 2010, $25
Local readers in particular can rejoice in Carol Goodman’s decision to revisit the Catskills. From earliest times, the region has inspired tales of enchantment. It’s beautiful country, but neither simple nor easy—there are surprises in the hills, and layers of meaning and history to be parsed before anything like clarity is achieved. What better setting, then, for a Gothic Modern heroine to find herself in on a voyage of survival and discovery?
The voyage undertaken by Meg Rosenthal will resonate in many a heart. Widow of hedge fund manager flees Great Neck, taking refuge in a simpler and more affordable life upstate. Her journey is born of necessity, not whimsy; her mall-rat daughter thinks it’s a lame idea, and, since Meg is a character in a Goodman novel, we know that what looks from a distance like refuge will instead pose challenges and demand that she step up and grab life with both hands.
Life at Arcadia Falls, a private school for the arts where Meg has landed a teaching position, has a slightly other-dimensional oddness to it from the start. The students celebrate Wiccan holidays complete with bonfires and rites (“founded by hippie lesbian witches,” snorts 16-year-old Sally) and the dean of students is more than a little eccentric. Even the architecture twists and is full of secrets, and paths through the woods seem to change from daytime to nightfall.
It’s the perfect setting to teach literature—marred only by a student death that might have been a tragic accident. Nothing is what it first seems: not the dean, with her icy intellectual façade; not the local sheriff, with his boyish grin and seemingly supercilious attitude; not the flamboyantly disorganized art teacher; and certainly not the history of the school, which emerged from a Byrdcliffesque art colony caught in the throes of a love triangle among its founding members.
Meg’s starting point and touchstone is the work of those founders, especially The Changeling Girl, a fairy tale so evocative that not even teens can resist it. As she digs deeper into the history that is still shaping lives in Arcadia Falls, she finds herself with one foot in the past and one in the present. The present feels fraught with danger; there are people who will stop at nothing to keep long-ago secrets buried.
The genesis of the mystery turns out to be the deeply human dilemmas faced by talented women when the creativity of the life force itself tangles with the creativity of the individual. Is it possible to be a good mother and a great artist? What ethical standards apply, and what motivates the choices women make? Does parenthood require that we put financial stability above all else? Crushing difficulties surrounded those choices in an earlier era; the lasting divide between artists and “upstanding citizens” has survived feminism and modernization.
Reading Carol Goodman’s silken, seductive prose is an exquisite experience in itself. Like a fine favorite meal prepared by a chef with equal parts inspiration and precision, or a classical music performance during which the conductor and orchestra seem to meld into one creature of sound, her use of the English language is breathtaking, all the more so because it seems to flow as naturally as pure mountain water through this tale of mothers, daughters, damage, and triumph. By novel’s end, turbid whitewater has become a clear vernal pool. Delicious.