Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Review: Arcadia Falls

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Carol Goodman’s latest book, Arcadia Falls, is an excellent page-turner. It opens by introducing us to Meg Rosenthal and her daughter Sally, as they leave behind a life that ended abruptly with the premature death of Jude, Sally's father and Meg's husband. Used to the affluent and high-profile environment that his financial trading job had demanded, they had been blissfully unaware of the debts he had incurred to maintain their lifestyle, and of Jude’s treacherous survivalist maneuvers which included cashing out Sally's college fund to cover the failing hedge fund investments of his clients.

Faced with these facts after his death, they had to sell everything, from their Great Neck house to almost the last stick of furniture they owned. Meg is forced to jumpstart her academic career, which had been suspended in order to start their family. This brings them to Arcadia Falls, a small upstate New York town that is home to the Arcadia School, once a breakaway artist colony, now a boarding school that challenges youngsters to explore their talents and develop their minds away from the crush of the urban world. Meg is to begin teaching a class in folklore to the students, and Sally is allowed to enroll and continue her schooling in the midst of a strange environment and a new set of peers.

However, it was not these elementary plot lines that drew me into the story. The allure for me is in the thread of darkly beautiful folklore and fairy tales woven into and around the school, its history, and its current day events. The tales, told within the storyline of the Rosenthals’ encounter with the school, are exquisite and challenging. Published by the school’s founders, Lily Eberhardt and Vera Beecher, in order to help fund the shift from artist colony to academy, the tales are magic, pure and simple. When retold on the school’s grounds, where apple orchards lift their gnarled arms to the sky in imitation of the storyteller’s sentient woods, and rumors of a white-gowned ghost that haunts a treacherous gorge recall other tales, they become all the more real.

Author Carol Goodman creates Arcadia Falls so well that it truly exists, a living symbiosis of trees, rocks, old barn studios and school classrooms, peopled by the students and teachers of today and their inescapable ties to the artists of the past. As Meg explores this world, so do we. From secret panels in the old school cottage she lives in, to luminous allegorical paintings, to collections of old letters and school documents, and chance conversations with artists who are now residents in the small town nearby, bit by bit the story comes to light.

What is made abundantly clear is that nothing is simple, or simply explained, when humans are involved. Our need to create stories, and to bind or sever our ties with the past, overrides common sense, overrides what others might see as the truth, and rewrites history with every breath.

This book will appeal to mystery-lovers, fans of folklore and fairy tales, those curious about the fabled havens of artists, and students of the human condition in general. It also reminded me of certain enchanting elements that attracted me to the book Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen, an atypically fluffy read for me. While this is the first of Goodman's books I've read, it is likely that I'll finally pick up some of her other books to read now that I've had such luck with this one. She is best known for The Lake of Dead Languages and The Night Villa.

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