The Lace Reader: A Re-Read

The Lace Reader: A NovelI first read Brunonia Barry’s debut novel The Lace Reader right before it was published as an advanced reader copy. You can read my review here. I decided to re-read the novel after my trip to Salem. I think Barry’s Map of True Places captures the character of Salem perhaps more clearly than Barry’s first novel, but I think that The Map of True Places is also more about Salem than The Lace Reader. It’s strange, but this time reading, I did see some elements of a feminine hero’s journey that I didn’t pick up on before. Before I go on, I should warn you that I won’t divulge the big reveal at the end of the book, but the remainder of this review might be a bit spoilery.

Katherine Howe, writer of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, has said that historically dogs have been considered witches’ familiars in greater numbers than cats, who have the association with witchcraft today. She gave her Connie a little dog named Arlo in her book. I wondered as I read about all the dogs on Yellow Dog Island, who seemed to be able to know what Towner wanted and would listen to her, especially in one crucial scene in the end. Did Barry intend to hearken back to the idea of dogs as familiars, or was it a coincidental choice? I myself would consider Towner, May, and Eva to be witches in a sense, though they don’t explicitly embrace that notion themselves in the same way that Ann Chase does.

One of the elements Joseph Campbell describes as an aspect of many hero’s journeys is the rebirth in the forest or the cave. For example, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry walks into the Forbidden Forest to face Voldemort, fully believing he will die. Instead, the Horcrux inside him is destroyed, and he is, in a sense, reborn. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck fakes his own death to escape from Pap. He emerges from the cave on the island a new person, so to speak. I saw a similar rebirth in The Lace Reader. Toward the end, when Towner is trying to rescue Angela from Cal’s followers, the two women travel through a secret doorway in Eva’s basement that leads to a tunnel. Because the tide is in, the water partially fills the tunnel, and the women will have to swim in order to escape because Cal’s followers have set fire to Eva’s house behind them. Towner takes Angela by the hair and instructs her to go limp so that she can help both of them swim to the end of the tunnel. They emerge in Eva’s boathouse at the other end. In a way, this seemed to me to be a feminization of the emergence from the cave in that the water surrounded the women. It actually made me think it might be a metaphor for the birth canal. After that moment, both women are in a sense reborn. I wondered if that metaphor had occurred to Barry, if she had been aiming for it. By the way, I subscribe to the belief that just because a writer didn’t intentionally mean to create a symbol or metaphor, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Reading is a creative act, and we bring our thoughts and experiences to reading. If we see a symbol there, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s there. Tolkien is famous, for example, for hating allegory. Yet The Lord of the Rings, and especially The Silmarillion can be read as biblical allegory. I actually like Jasper Fforde’s explanation: he says a book only belongs to an author as long as no one else has read it. After that, it belongs to the reader, too, and the creative act of reading allows for readers to interpret books in ways that authors might not have considered. And they’re right, too.

The Lace Reader is more intriguing on a re-read because knowing the big reveal at the end enabled me to read the book with a different eye. I caught many more of Barry’s hints regarding what might be going on in Towner’s psyche than I did when I read it the first time. Unreliable narrators are difficult because I think as readers we are trained to trust the person telling the story, and some people don’t like this book because they feel betrayed by the narrator. However, Barry has not betrayed anyone. It would take a more astute reader than I to pick up on all the clues on a first read, but she does plant clues, and in the end, the big reveal makes sense given what the reader knows about Towner and how other characters react to her. Re-reading revealed much more starkly to me the ways in which Barry takes pains not to cheat the reader, but I think some of the negative comments I’ve seen about this book centered around not feeling prepared for that ending, and on a re-read, I didn’t think it is a fair criticism. I admit to being surprised by the ending the first time, but it isn’t completely out of the blue, and it makes sense in the story. And as I said in my last review, readers would do well to take Towner at her word in the first few sentences. She is telling the truth, there.

I think Barry is an interesting writer. She has a great knack for evoking a place, turning that place into a character in its own right. Her secondary characters like Eva, Ann Chase, who appears in both of her novels, and Melville, Finch, and Jessina in The Map of True Places are well-drawn and fun to read. In all, I think The Map of True Places is a stronger book, and I think those who didn’t enjoy The Lace Reader precisely for the reasons I discussed will like it better, but I thoroughly enjoyed both books. I thought this interview, in which Barry examines the novel herself with a critical eye, was illuminating.

Both times I have read this book, I’ve finished wanting know how to make lace. I am looking forward to whatever Brunonia Barry writes next. I find her writing inspiring in that I would like to be able to write about place and create such interesting characters in the same way that she does.

My rating is still the same.

Rating: ★★★★★

Full disclosure: I received this book originally as an advanced reader copy, and the second copy, the one I re-read, as part of a prize package from William Morrow and Destination Salem. I like the paperback cover better than the hardcover version.