Iris Greenfeder, ABD (All But Dissertation), feels the “buts” are taking over her life: all but published, all but a professor, all but married. Yet the sudden impulse to write a story about her mother, Katherine Morrissey, leads to a shot at literary success. The piece recounts an eerie Irish fairy tale her mother used to tell her at bedtime—and nestled inside it is the sad story of her death. It captures the attention of her mother’s former literary agent, who is convinced that Katherine wrote one final manuscript before her strange, untimely end in a fire thirty years ago. So Iris goes back to the remote Hotel Equinox in the Catskills, the place where she grew up, to write her mother’s biography and search for the missing manuscript—and there she unravels a haunting mystery, one that holds more secrets than she ever expected. . . .
Of the three Carol Goodman books I have read, this is my favourite! Iris Greenfeder is a writer. The reality is that she is more a writing teacher who is constantly looking for the story that is going to give her success so that she can step out from the shadows of her mother. Her mother, Kay Morrissey, wrote two hugely successful fantasy novels, and is rumoured to have written the third and final book in the trilogy but she was killed in a terrible hotel fire, and no one knows exactly where that third book may be hidden.
When she is writes a story about her mother she achieves a degree of success, and she is contacted by her mother's former agent and asked to write a book about her mother. The best place to do this is at her childhood home, the Equinox Hotel in the Catskills. Where the hotel used to be a family vacation destination, nowadays the hotel is struggling and is in danger of being closed for good. Fortunately, a new owner has been found, and so Iris is employed to manage the hotel when it reopens, which should allow her to save her home but also the time she needs to write, and access to documents about her mother and memories from the few guests who do continue to return year after year.
What follows is a story that is laced through with myths and legends - Celtic myths of selkies and fairies, but when she sets her students a writing project to write about myths we are also introduced to the myths of other countries, most memorably from Japan. As part of her teaching at a community college, we meet several other diverse characters who play minor but key roles in the book. Iris also teaches at a prison, and it is here that she meets Aidan Barry who is just about to be released on parole.
With her new role as manager, she offers Aidan a job at the hotel - a chance for the ex-con to start again. The question is can you ever truly leave the past behind? Is the new owner of the hotel only interested in the hotel as a business or is there more too it than that? Who exactly was her mother and was Kay Morrissey's death an accident, and why are all these questions arising after all these years? As Iris learns more, the evidence takes her in completely unexpected directions and threatens to reveal the truth about a lot of people who don't necessarily want the truth revealed after all these years.
As the book heads towards its climax, the body count grows, the plot twists and turns, and Iris is forced to evaluate her relationship with her artist boyfriend and fight for what it is that she really wants out of life. If there is one criticism it may be that the characters had to go through one too many trials at the end of the book, but it's a small thing.
I loved the mythology and the imagery that permeated this book. Of the three books by this author I have read so far, this is the one book that I would be happy to reread. If Goodman's future novels are like this one then I will be a very happy reader indeed.
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