Books

Kim Edwards' 'Lake of Dreams' has good parts, but isn't a great whole

In her best-selling first novel, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Lexington author Kim Edwards traced the consequences of a father's decision to spirit away a newborn with Down's syndrome and falsely report her as dead. Family secrets and lies are also the subjects of Edwards' new book, The Lake of Dreams, which follows a young woman as she tracks the life of a forebear expunged from her family's history.

Lucy Jarrett comes home to an upstate New York village called the Lake of Dreams after years working overseas. A decade ago, she left for college following her father's death in a mysterious boating accident, blaming herself for refusing to go fishing with him that night. She's been traveling ever since, "from college to grad school, from good jobs to better ones and through a whole series of romances, leaving all that grief behind."

Forcibly slowed by a spell of unemployment in Japan, she's having troubling dreams about home, and her boyfriend Yoshi gently suggests that she needs to pay a visit.

It's a strong setup, given added punch by the tensions Lucy describes when she arrives. Her father's estranged brother, Art, plans to develop land formerly occupied by a military depot, while a group that includes her high-school sweetheart wants it protected as a wetlands area.

Then Lucy discovers a stack of old papers in a room that's been closed off since her father died. They include fliers from the early 20th-century feminist movement and an angry note from 1925, signed only with the initial R, that refers to a 14-year-old girl, Iris, being sent away from home. Several convenient coincidences later, Lucy knows that her great-grandfather had a sister named Rose who had a daughter named Iris. "There was some sort of scandal," Lucy's uncle recalls.

Lucy's quest to find out what happened takes her to Women's Rights National Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y., to the studio of stained-glass artist Frank Westrum and to an abandoned chapel on the disputed depot land. What she sees and learns stir up old feelings of being excluded from the male-centered church of her youth. But Lucy knows she is more fortunate than Rose, who was arrested for participating in a women's suffrage march, sent away by her family and forced to leave her daughter behind.

Lucy is a well-drawn character, but her motives are not always convincing. When she claims that the discovery of her suppressed family history "raised questions about my past, which I'd always imagined to be written in stone," that supposed certainty doesn't jibe with the unanswered questions surrounding her father's death.

The more serious problem here is that Edwards crams too much material into a narrative that creaks from the strain. A plethora of revelations unfolds during a scant two weeks. The mysterious story of Iris and Rose is told largely through the implausible device of unsent letters, and their tale is linked to more recent family conflicts in contrived ways. A will hidden in a wall, a missing person located in the phone book and a middle-of-the-night confession — these are signs of an author so intent on getting to a predetermined destination that she forgets to make sure her readers are willing to follow.

Edwards aspires to delineate the complex bonds of family and the tangled web of history in her tale of "beauty and loss surfacing in every generation," but her insights aren't always up to the level of her ambitions. The sections about early feminism often sound like undigested (and slightly didactic) social studies lessons. An exchange between Lucy and Yoshi about her predictable attraction to her former boyfriend is typical of the heavy-footed dialogue: "It was over before it began." "I believe you. I'm glad it didn't feel right." But some lovely descriptive passages display a more deft touch, prompting the hope that this talented writer will try to do less and execute more thoughtfully next time around.

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