At first glance, I wasn't sure that Arcadia Falls would be the sort of book I might normally read…which makes me wonder, what IS the type of book I would normally read and what were my assumptions going into this book. The basic synopsis sets the book up to be a sort of mother-daughter relationship book combined with a sort of self-discovery and some peripheral romance and mystery thrown in. With that sort of description, it sounds like it might border on "chick-lit" and be a little too sentimental for my taste. But for some reason, the more in-depth details of the premise intrigued me.
Meg Rosenthal (the mother) has taken a teaching position at a reclusive, semi-art-commune boarding school while she works to finish her PhD in literature (with a focus on fairy tales, especially 20th century fairy tales). The school is filled with strange myths and legends including a strange death of one of the founders (Lily) 60+ years ago that unraveled the life of the other founder (Vera…also Lily's lover). I think perhaps I was drawn by the suggestion of a literary mystery along with a sort of magical realism as myth and reality intertwine.
The first chapter or two had to work hard to pull me in and get me interested in the characters but the writing was eloquent and lovely and a pleasure to read (though sometimes the descriptions, while poetic and beautiful, slowed down the pace of the plot and made me want to skip ahead). The characters were interesting but sometimes alternated between predictable or a little too dense. At times I felt like I saw their motivations coming from pages away and at other times I wanted to smack them to take the next obvious move. Most of the time, the characters were intriguing and fun.
There are a number of story arcs going on. The two main arcs focus on the death of Lily half a century ago and the death of Isabel shortly after Meg arrives on the campus. These two deaths are parallels in many ways, so much so that it's a little too uncanny, but it sets Meg onto the trail of discovering the truth of both deaths. In addition to these two main plots, there is a lot of character interaction and growth between mother and daughter. Meg is trying to stay focused on her teaching, finishing her PhD, and investigating these deaths, but at the same time she's trying to grow a stronger relationship with her daughter Sally who has been struggling since Meg's husband died. The interactions between teenage daughter and busy mother felt realistic. Since we are generally seeing the world only through Meg's eyes, we never get Sally's reaction to what's going on except through the lens of the concerned parent trying hard to make things work but confused and frustrated at the lack of connection. I really felt that the relationship between these two was one of the strengths of this book.
The other big strength was the backstory of Lily, Vera and Nash (the man who came between them). The romance between these characters was told with the almost poetic language used elsewhere in the book. The love was very beautiful and sentimental and helped draw me in to the plot. When this historical plot collides with the "present day" plot, I felt like the mingling and unraveling of the various tangles was a little contrived, but generally, the stories were interesting and engaging.
The book had a sort of creepy fairy tale quality that worked as a sort wrapping for the entire text (especially poignant since Meg was doing her PhD on fairy tales). The writing is crisp and lovely though sometimes slowed down the reading and even though it was pretty it lessened my engagement in the story. Still, I was interested and excited to see the various plots work to their conclusion. Personally, I felt like the climactic conclusion was a little too "Scooby-Doo-esque" and I wonder if that segment could have been handled differently. But in the end, I liked the way the story wrapped up.
While I didn't necessarily "love" this book, I attribute part of that to it being on the edges of my "normal" reading tastes. However, I enjoyed it enough that I'd actually like to seek out more by this author.
3 out of 5 stars
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