In bestselling author Chris Bohjalian’s “Secrets of Eden,” some mysteries untangle themselves as we approach the last pages of his cleverly told novel.
"Secrets of Eden" By Chris Bohjalian. Shaye Areheart Books, New York, 2010. 370 pages. $25.
In bestselling author Chris Bohjalian’s “Secrets of Eden,” some mysteries untangle themselves as we approach the last pages of his cleverly told novel. Other mysteries, the most perplexing and urgent of all — Why does the husband beat his wife? Why does the wife take him back? How is it that the children, victims of domestic violence themselves, manage to survive even partially intact? — remain mysteries. And still others, such as the way good can somehow extricate itself from bad or how it is that heroes sometimes emerge from uninspired lives, are for us to ponder without Bohjalian’s help.
Bohjalian is a good storyteller and a good writer. There are beautiful passages in his book, and it’s a bona fide page-turner. He lives in Vermont, and another of his well-known books, “Midwives,” was an Oprah Book Club selection. “Secrets of Eden,” his 12th novel, is set in a small Vermont village and in Manhattan. In it, four characters talk about their involvement in the lives, and deaths, of Alice and George Hayward. Alice is found beaten and strangled. George, there beside her in their Vermont Cape, has been shot in the head. What first appears to be a murder-suicide is later determined to be a double-homicide. George killed his wife but who killed George? The Haywards’ 15-year-old daughter Katie is one of the survivors and one of the four narrators of this story. She was away at a concert when her father murdered her mother.
George was extremely controlling and violent, especially after having a few beers, yet no one outside the marriage knew this about George. He was a good-looking, personable entrepreneur with a few businesses that had been successful until the recession. People respected him. In the months before he killed Alice, he had been forced out of the house by a temporary restraining order. He stayed away for 100 days, during which time he quit drinking and began to court anew his wife and daughter. Alice, an attractive and competent woman who nonetheless suffered self-doubts when George railed about her bad cooking or dowdy appearance, indulged in a brief affair with her pastor, Stephen Drew.
Drew becomes a suspect and Catherine Benincasa, a state prosecutor, is convinced of his guilt. And Heather Laurent, a bestselling author of spiritual books about angels, goes to Vermont to comfort Drew and Katie. She sees a certain suffering in Drew’s eyes in the newspaper photos she examines, and she knows firsthand what Katie is experiencing since her own father shot her mother and then hanged himself.
As each of the four storytellers here — Drew, Catherine, Heather and finally Katie — discuss the events and share their own perceptions and feelings — the story widens from something wholly fixated on domestic abuse and murder to the ways people step up to the plate, and the ways they fail, when called upon. Extraordinary situations test us and change us.
Drew is tiresome and a coward, at times. His affair with Alice ends with both the realization that he might even have loved her and that she was extremely unsafe with George. Yet he distances himself from the trouble. Catherine, the prosecutor, has her sights set on Drew. She’s so desensitized by what she’s seen over the years that she maddeningly underplays the dire situation Alice negotiated for the entirety of her marriage. Heather, who claims an angel saved her at her lowest moment after her parents’ deaths, is nonetheless open enough to explore the situation in Vermont and provide information that allows us to further untangle the mysteries. What biases she has, she admits to, though angel-inspired instincts are not necessarily to be believed.
You may not like the characters, especially Drew and Catherine, but they are fully formed and they draw you into this somber story. Very few of us leave our childhoods unscathed and many adapt ingeniously. Life is all the more interesting, and hopeful, because of it.
Rae Francoeur can be reached at email@example.com. Her memoir “Free Fall: A Late in Life Love Affair” comes out in April and her blog can be found at freefallrae.blogspot.com