Thursday, 23 February 2012

Carol Goodman: Arcadia Falls (2010)

Note: There is a serious spoiler in the final paragraph of this review.

There is almost a subgenre of fiction set in remote New England boarding schools and colleges. Like thirties house parties in English stately homes, a staple setting for vintage crime fiction (as well as P.G. Wodehouse, of course), they provide a sealed community of privileged individuals which acts to intensify relationships, promote jealousy and passion, and makes more or less normal people behave in strange and bizarre fashions - as happens, for instance, in Donna Tartt's Secret History, referenced in a review quoted on the cover of this edition of Arcadia Falls.

The specific location for this story is school focusing on art, formerly an artistic colony. It is told from the point of view of a recently widowed (and, as a result, newly poor) single mother Megan Rosenthal, who gratefully takes up a post teaching English literature at Arcadia Falls, which is accompanied by the offer of a place at the school to her daughter Sally, only to find that within a few weeks of her arrival and the start of the school year a student goes missing before her body is found at the foot of cliffs in the (extensive) school grounds. At the same time, Megan becomes fascinated by the relationship between the two women who effectively founded and then ran the school for decades with a somewhat peculiar vision (which includes participation in pagan rituals to mark the seasons by the pupils).

A "finding oneself" theme is very important in Arcadia Falls, exemplified by a children's story, The Changeling Girl, written by one of the school's founders which is told, retold, reflected and commented on throughout the novel in ironic fashion, as characters both act it out and talk about it - adopted children discovering or seeking the identities of their parents, for example, as well as Megan trying to build a new life for herself and Sally after the death of her husband. Another theme is the way that the decisions made in one generation affect the next, with several mothers giving up careers to raise children, or giving up a baby for adoption, with repercussions for both the parents and the children. Sometimes the treatment is a little mawkish, but generally these themes serve to unify the disparate elements of the story and even provide something of a moral, if the reader feels that such a thing is necessary.

Though the setting with its Gothic touches and the themes of Arcadia Falls are hardly original, it is a well written and entertaining novel on the boundary between literary fiction, crime fiction, and fantasy, the last being more suggested than the other two genres. It is the depiction of character and the touches of atmosphere which make the story worth reading. It reminded me of the novels of Mary Stewart, particularly the later ones. However, the sentimentality of the ending was a big problem for me, so in the end I would rate it at 6/10.

Edition: Piatkus, 2011
Review number: 1451

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