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The Lace Reader

The complications and unexpected twists of this Salem mystery are part of its charm.

By Yvonne Zipp / August 13, 2008

Folks, don’t mess with a woman wielding needles. If Charles Dickens hadn’t made this perfectly plain in “A Tale of Two Cities,” Brunonia Barry hammers the point home in her new novel, The Lace Reader, which features the most high-concept use of needle work since Madame Defarge and her knitted register.

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Salem resident Barry is that rarest of creatures: a bona fide self-publishing success. Her debut novel for adults, “The Lace Reader,” attracted so much buzz she scored a seven-figure deal with William Morrow. The combination of do-it-yourself grit and a page-turning plot should make her popular with book clubs and knitting circles alike.

That plot – which incorporates women’s issues, a dead twin, sailing, a cult, spiritualism, insanity, reincarnation, underground tunnels, and a witch hunt involving an actual mob carrying actual torches – is crammed fuller than the carry-on bag of a Delta Airlines passenger. And it all hinges on one doozy of a reveal that upends everything that came before.

Surprise endings are tough to pull off – too often they aren’t a surprise to anyone but the main character. To Barry’s credit, she genuinely got me. But the big finish leaves all of the characters’ interactions in question and their futures unresolved. This is no doubt intentional, since Barry is apparently planning a trilogy. (Although one has to wonder, what’s left?)

Towner Whitney fled Salem, Mass., after the death of her twin at 18. As she explains to a reader, after Lyndley’s death, she spent time in a mental institution, where she volunteered for shock therapy, leaving her with few memories of her childhood, even fewer of them good.

Now 32, she’s returned because her beloved Aunt Eva, an etiquette teacher and Salem’s original lace reader, has disappeared. Waiting for Towner on the family-owned Yellow Dog Island are the other Whitney women: May, an agoraphobic who runs a lacemaking collective for abused women, and Emma, who was blinded by her abusive husband – the man who Towner says abused her twin.

“Never believe me. I lie all the time,” Towner tells readers on the first page. “I am a crazy woman.... That last part is true.” A reader would do well to read those sentences several times before proceeding and, whenever things don’t make sense, flip back and read them again.

All the Whitney women can read lace (as opposed to tea leaves), although Towner hasn’t done it since she was a teenager.


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