The Lace Reader in one word: disappointing.
I don't mind an unreliable narrator, especially if it's one who identifies herself right off the bat as a liar. I don't even mind a delusional, psychotic one.
I don't mind when the narrator shifts from first person to third person — and from one character to another — in the middle of a section, then shifts back. All with no explanation or preamble. Toss in yet a third narrative with no preamble or explanation: a journal written in the first person by someone who is writing fiction — or not. (Despite Brunona Barry's best attempts to derail me, I usually could figure out who was telling the story. Usually.)
What I do mind is surprises that come out of nowhere. When a book changes course, a story has a shift, it has to make sense or be explained to where it makes sense in that universe. In this case, the shifts were incongruous with the storyline. We are tooling along, the story is ambling in a certain direction, then BAM! Suddenly, the story we've followed with the guidance of our narrators, what we've been presented as fact from either a police officer gathering evidence or a psychotic woman undergoing shock treatment and literally losing her mind, is no longer reliable.
The sad thing is: I saw much of it coming.
In the debut novel (which began as a self-published book), Towner is a woman in her early 30s who returns to her childhood home of Salem, Mass. when her elderly great aunt is reported missing. Once that mystery is solved, Towner remains in town to take care of loose ends, many of which remained unraveled after she escaped from the town as a teen when her sister committed suicide and she had a complete mental breakdown. Many of these loose ends involve her family, which is tied closely to the town, and their secrets that bubble to the surface.
I think the biggest problem is that I mistrusted Towner and her — well, everything, from the beginning. Yes, she admitted at the beginning to be a liar. However, it was worse than that: conflicting images and stories, psychotic breaks with reality and complete portions of her life lost through treatment and re-imagined by the memory-challenged woman with no reliable frame of reference all fed into the confusion. The few jarring clues readers were fed about Lindley (her tombstone, Jack's response to Lindley's suicide) were obtuse and murky. Worse than that, they were forced.
What I did like is the characters. Well, most of the characters. I liked Rafferty, a relocated divorced New York cop who inexplicably became entangled with Towner. (I would have liked a little insight into that connection, where it came from and why. I know the heart wants what the heart wants, but it wasn't clear and I just didn't understand it.) I liked Ann, the town witch who was a true friend to Towner, Rafferty and Eva. She didn't get in the way, but she offered assistance and took care of those who needed it. Much of her talent was in her ability to observe. I liked Eva, who loved her family and took care of them as best she could. I also am ashamed to admit that I liked Cal, in his smooth-suited self.
Alas, I did not like Towner because she was untrustworthy in a slippery way and not in the least bit sympathetic. I wanted to like May, but she was two-dimensional as perceived by Towner, and I didn't get a handle on her. Maybe that's how psychotic children see their parents. I wanted to like the Ipswich lace, which is historically accurate in this story, and the reading of it; I am intrigued by divination. Alas, the one in the story who could read it reliably was Towner, and she was unreliable.
The author noted that she thought reality vs. perception was at the heart of the novel. Instead, I perceived a lot of unwoven lace, tangled threads that made no sense to me. I can't recommend this book.
Did you read it? What did you think?