Sunday, October 02, 2011

Mysteries in Different Garb: Ayelet Waldman, RED HOOK ROAD (2010); Ann Patchett, STATE OF WONDER

Ayelet Waldman's "Mommy Track" mysteries took me right back to that sticky sensation of toddlers on the run, odd food samples in strange places, and anxiety dreams (that still come back) about leaving one of the kids someplace -- which, thank goodness, never happened in real life. Based on that early experience with Waldman's books (enjoyable but light),  I was completely unprepared for the depth and agony of RED HOOK ROAD. And I'm so glad I caught up with this book, even though I'm a year late in discovering it.

Is it a mystery? There's no crime to solve, although there are burning questions. Often, all the answers seem to have been laid out, as Waldman offers scenes from various viewpoints, all centered on a stretch of Maine's coast where oldtimers and newcomers -- no matter where their grandparents once lived -- see the world and its days flavored by entirely different needs. And when Becca Copaken and John Tetherly ignore their families' frictions and marry each other, the deadly disaster that seizes them might even be Fate's reply to what happens when Juliet insists on publicly swearing loyalty to Romeo, and vice versa.

Waldman fastens on the way resentments, blame, and seething rage grow in the mind and heart at any age, in any condition. I found the book every bit as "gripping" as Khaled Hosseini (Kite Runner author) said it would be. In terms of genre, it's almost beach reading; almost literary; almost a romance; but entirely compelling, and I'll read it again.

Ann Patchett's STATE OF WONDER is less conventional -- I picked up the book because I've sometimes deeply enjoyed the magic in her novels. I didn't expect this one to deal with a missing person, a death in the wilds of Brazil's Amazon region, or a medical conundrum with shades of Michael Crichton in its insistence on new possibilities. Some parts moved slowly, langorously, and there are segments that require (like a Crichton book) a suspension of disbelief, in order to roll with the unusual twists.

What I liked best about it, oddly, was reading it at the same time when I was reading an advance copy of Leighton Gage's new Brazil crime fiction, A VINE IN THE BLOOD, due out in December of this year. The two novels meshed in what they paint of this distant and complicated landscape. I suppose it sounds odd to suggest reading Patchett in order to get ready for Gage -- but it's still a good notion.

And yes, I'm willing to include both books within the wide swath of mystery/suspense/detection that makes up Kingdom Books.

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