July 19, 2012

BOOKS: The Uncertain Places, Lisa Goldstein (2011)

Lisa Goldstein's The Uncertain Places is a marvelous 100-page novella, followed by 130 pages of less good follow-up to bring it to novel length.

The setting is northern California in the early 1970s, where Berkeley student Will Taylor has just been introduced to the Feierabend family, a mother and three sisters who own a vineyard in the Napa Valley. Will falls hard for Livvy, but their relationship becomes complicated when she falls into a mysterious sleep.

The rest of the family doesn't seem as shocked by this as Will is; they've actually been expecting it. The Feierabends are, it turns out, the central figures in a fairy tale that the Grimms never published, and Livvy's sleep (which is to last seven years) is part of a family curse in exchange for which they are blessed with luck and good fortune.

Will's attempt to free Livvy from the curse is the focus of the first half of the novel, and if you stop reading on page 101, when he says "I bet you thought the story would end there," you will have been told a nearly perfect tale.

I looked forward to continuing, because I generally enjoy stories about what comes after "happily ever after," but in this case, I felt somewhat let down. Goldstein stretches the tale into a second generation of the family, introduces a variety of new (less interesting) characters who know bits and pieces of the Feierabends' story, and spends way too much time in the realm of those fairies who placed the curse.

It's not that the second half of the novel is poorly written or uninteresting; it's a pretty good story with some clever twists and uses of fairy tale tropes. But in comparison to the brilliance of those first hundred pages, there's definitely a slump towards the sluggish and the pedestrian.

It may just be that Goldstein has trouble writing endings; I thought that the final chapters of her Dark Cities Underground fell a bit flat, too. I liked that book, though, and even the weaker half of this one is worth your while.

(I see from her Wikipedia entry that she's written several other novels. Anyone familiar enough with her work to recommend any of them in particular?)

No comments: