The Clockmaker’s Daughter 2

How three centuries of lives connect to an English countryside home (1862 – 2017): Writing is “a lot like assembling a puzzle,” says Kate Morton, bestselling Australian author and Londoner. Yet after five hefty novels, she found crafting her sixth, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, “the hardest novel to write because it has so many strands.” Now she challenges us to figure out how all the character-driven storylines are connected over 150 years, over nearly 500 pages. Not so easy as you can get lost in her gorgeously flowing prose, richly atmospheric with historical threads.

As the title suggests, this puzzle is Time-themed. Packaged in a thousand-piece, high-quality box, the cover image is a “lichen-colored stone” English country estate surrounded by lush gardens, matching stone walls, and beautiful views. The stone – ancient Cotswold Stone – is key to the location: someplace around Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire counties outside of London. A step-back-in-time designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, ideal for puzzling with 21st and 20th century pieces that link to the 19th.

The novel is trademark Morton, to her “obsession with houses, real and fictional.” She also loves the physicality of old houses. Birchwood Manor, the rural “craftsman’s house” at the heart of all the connections, is filled with lyrical physical descriptions like these:

“An embarrassment of chimneys;” “twin gables of the gray slate roof;” and attic views of the “bend in the river” Thames… “silver-tipped” not like the “muddy tyrant” that seethed through London – all giving a “deep sense of contentment.”

Many characters serve to entangle generations to each other, to drive home a message of timelessness. How they link up, mysteries, are the puzzle pieces we’re enticed to put together.

A ghost, our narrator, guides us through the centuries. A reliable voice, assuring us “I remember everything.” Compatible with Morton’s Britain: a “land of ghosts and every acre could lay claim to being a landscape of legacy.”

She is the first character we meet whose spirit resides at Birchwood Manor. She makes her presence in the 1860s. An orphan, thus also the first character to symbolize one of the novel’s themes – abandonment – and how those forsaken feelings never fade away, rather feel the “weight of time.”

This ghost is so secretive no one knows her real name. We get to identify her by a fake one, Lily Millington, adopted in the heat of the moment when she meets Edward Radcliffe, a charismatic artist and member of the Magenta Brotherhood. Fictionalized, it appears, to contrast with the real short-lived yet influential Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from the Victorian era, which is also cited.

Edward’s character meshes with his fellow artists known for: “sensuality and motion. They obsessed over things like enchantment, memory and truth; nature and the meaning of beauty.” So it’s entirely within his passionate nature to intensely, instinctively feel Lily will be “his muse, his destiny” despite his engagement to a high-society woman. Very different from Lily, whose grim and grimy backstory doesn’t equate with a genuine love with someone like Edward, except to escape a harsh life. But that love does endure the test of time, and place.

Initially, Edward paints his stunning model in the studio garden of his mother’s London home. Not enough “heaven-scent” light, so he beckons her to the beauty and privacy of the heavenly countryside of Birchwood Manor, along with his band of artist friends for what turns out to be a life-changing summer.

Lily tantalizes, whispering there’s another reason Edward’s drawn to the estate but it’s “a secret.” Fast-moving events happen in the opening pages – the death of Edward’s fiancé and a jewel theft – but Edward’s secret takes time to surface. The paradox of time: some things move so swiftly they pass us by; others dwell like a broken clock. Memories forgotten; memories everlasting.

Lily and Edward exemplify both. They leap forth, but before we know it they’ve mysteriously disappeared. Edward only reappears in memories the ghost wants to reveal when she chooses to. Periodically she does, poking back into the novel eleven times, after initially appearing in a preface, moving back and forth through time and storylines, taking us right into the present-day, 2017.

That’s when Chapter One begins, introducing Elodie Winslow, a thirty-year-old archivist working for the venerable London firm Stratton, Cadwell and Co. A quiet, thoughtful person, well-matched to archival work, especially investigating the provenance of artifacts – piecing together the past – since it’s twenty-five years since she lost her famous classical cellist mother and has yet to know facts leading to her untimely death. She still misses her terribly, as does her melancholy father, but she’s been overly sensitive to ask him any questions.

Elodie’s story opens when she discovers a box under her desk. Among the contents are a fine leather satchel with sketchbooks inside, and another leather case coveting a lovely framed picture of an arresting woman dressed in white. She judges these items Victorian-aged. Something about the sketches triggers a primal reaction, echoing a fairytale her mother used to tell her. The reader has scant information to go on, but Elodie’s remembrance of a river sticks with us too because on page five our ghost mentions a riverbank. Was the fable imagined or based on reality? How did these artifacts end up at Stratton, who was a Victorian?

Sketches of the house also feel strangely familiar, conjuring the safety and love a mother’s bedtime story can mean to a little girl who came to call it “her secret place.” Faced with a personal need to investigate the past, these historical finds consume her, overshadowing upcoming plans for her wedding in six weeks.

Future mother-in-law, Penelope, overbearing and controlling, is not pleased with how little attention Elodie is paying to the wedding arrangements, constantly calling and interfering, whereas husband-to-be, Alastair, an investment banker on business in New York, is noticeably absent. Mother-and-son suggest a haughty upper-class, unlike down-to-earth, very likable Elodie. We never even meet Alastair, except through Elodie and conversations with her best friend, Pippa.

Pippa is an artist. Art – its beauty and permanency – an ever-present connecting theme.

While the reader wishes Elodie stays around longer than she does, Morton has other goals in mind: other characters with their own stories of loss to heighten how much the past and present converge. They include: The Special Ones from the ghost’s past; Elodie’s peculiar great-uncle Tip who reacts though denies that he recognizes the Victorian photo of the woman dressed in white; Edward’s devoted sister Lucy who turns the house into a proper boarding school for girls, some with their own abandoned stories; others who stay on the estate during later transformations.

After the school closed, the ghost roamed the vacant property. Then the Society of Art Historians bought it, turned in into an artist’s museum. That’s when Leonard arrives to research the mystique of Edward and the house for his doctoral thesis; he also bears a loss from the Great War. Later, a private investigator arrives photographing and searching for something. More: Juliet, a young widow who fled to the house with her three children when London was evacuated during the second war. Memories, stories that span two World Wars.

The ghost watches over all the “visitors,” illuminating what they’re doing at Birchwood Manor: “I have come to understand that loss leaves a hole in the person and that holes like to be filled.” She helps fill these in for us.

When Elodie returns to link the remaining puzzle pieces, we have a light bulb moment and our own sense of contentment.


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Open Mic Night in Moscow: And Other Stories from My Search for Black Markets, Soviet Architecture, and Emotionally Unavailable Russian Men

Why undertake daring solo travel to the former Soviet Union republics? (in Central Asia, the Baltic states, Eastern Europe, and Russia, 2015 to 2016): Let’s say you have a twenty-eight-year-old friend whose single. She grew up in Boston, currently lives in your Brooklyn, New York neighborhood. What if she told you her “pipedream” was to travel to eleven (for now) of the fifteen countries once part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991, the majority still autocratic regimes? By herself. For as long as a year. Your friend is candid, so you’re well aware she’s “insanely obsessed with the Russian language and culture (aka all her boyfriends were Russian),” but you hadn’t realized her obsession mushroomed into an “all-consuming passion” to take this crazy trip. What would you say to her?

Suppose you also knew your friend takes Xanax for anxiety. Why throw herself into such high-risk, high-anxiety situations regardless of her wildest dreams?

Your friend also suffers from motion sickness. She’ll be traveling on planes, trains, cars but figures her Sea-Band bracelets will counteract that. Good remedy, but not nearly good enough for the nitty-gritty of her protracted itinerary you weren’t privy to because she hadn’t planned that far ahead. So of course you couldn’t imagine she’d go trekking by horseback “climbing hills whose surfaces resemble the texture of crumbled paper” into the craggy, ten foot mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Audacious at best, particularly since the friend we’re talking about – Audrey Murray – had an episode of “high-altitude cerebral edema” at fifteen thousand feet.

Add to the list of motion sickness triggers Murray encounters: buses in Kazakhstan that don’t fully stop to let passengers on and off, and a “rickety prop plane” in Tajikistan considered “the most terrifying flight on Earth.”

All this happens to Audrey Murray a mere fifty pages into her 400 page memoir! She always wanted to be a writer. Did she have to go to the ends of the earth to accomplish that?

Murray is someone who walks the talk. “Nerves are the whole point,” she says. Overcoming her worst fears offers her an enormous sense of accomplishment and boost of self-confidence, which she’s in need of when she sets in motion her “dreamy” idea.

The gist of the author’s backstory: Murray was living in New York, then moved to Shanghai for four years SAT tutoring and founding a comedy club. Two years later she’s at a crossroads. Should she settle down, listen to her biological clock, parents, the path her peers were taking, societal expectations? Or, keep pursuing her curiosity and desire “to see life as being about the journey not the destination”?

Murray’s push and pull struggles as she enters her thirties are perhaps universal, but the striking journey she took anything but.

Shanghai is key to understanding why she took this plunge. Murray is obviously not new to throwing herself into the anxiety fire. Stand-up comedy is hard enough without attempting to tell jokes to an audience whose native language is Chinese. Gutsy.

Shanghai is also important because of that boyfriend thing. Murray had two Russian boyfriends – Oleg and Anton. Anton’s the one who haunts her, leaving a “dullness to everything.” They met in Shanghai; he’s also a comedian. Their break up two years before she flew to Kazakhstan to launch her Soviet-inspired trip coincides with those last two unsettling years in New York.

Anton is from Belarus, which accounts for Murray feeling: “of all the countries on Earth, Belarus is the place I’ve longed for the most.” Almost in the same breath she notes it’s “an isolated, authoritarian state said to most closely replicate life behind the iron curtain.” Daredevil that she is, she misses the intimacy of Anton terribly, fears she’ll never find another love like that. The poignancy of these emotions are ever-present. Poignant prose the heartbeat of her debut memoir.

Amidst the seriousness of the trip, might the comedian/author’s prose sometimes be funny? Not laugh-out-loud but in a dry humorous way, witty, self-deprecating, lively, entertaining. An example: When Murray visits Chernobyl in Ukraine – yes, the actual site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster – she wonders: “Why am I here?” Precisely the question we keep asking. Why not stop after visiting Ukraine’s National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev? Instead, the author traveled into the Exclusion Zone, to the evacuated town where the reactor sits. Murray’s and our question is the book’s arresting literary hook: what drives someone to venture to dangerous places? Her reply:

“Morbid curiosity? Regular curiosity? Fear of missing out on radioactive waste? Am I just drawn to anything that calls itself abandoned?”

Murray details the history of the disaster. Here’s a synopsis:

Chernobyl: The World's Worst Nuclear Disaster

Given Murray’s unorthodox itinerary, it’s staggering how “severely underprepared” she was. She did not overprepare to lessen anxieties like obtaining, in advance, all the visas she needed! Visas from countries like Belarus and Russia, notoriously difficult to obtain. The “tour fanatic” could have signed up for a tour run by a reputable travel company that would have handled the visas for her.

Prearranged group excursions would mean the author could not have been gone as long she was (nine months by my count), and they cost a small fortune. Though for this independent spirit, feeling constrained may have been the strongest motivator.

You might assume the traveler would have packed as light as humanely possible traversing so many countries, cities, dicey border crossings, hauling luggage on so many different types of transport, trains more than any other. Murray did not pack light. Her oversized baggage drew countless strangers to assist her. Their kindness surprises her over and over again.

The writer is an amiable, romantic soul. Everywhere she goes she meets strangers: from the “hopeful and hopeless” former Soviet places they live in to adventurers from Europe and elsewhere, many couples. All while encountering numerous language barriers (Murray studied Russian for six weeks, but soon learns an hour a day fell woefully insufficient); cultural misunderstandings; and the baffling, constant exchanging of currencies, stunning devaluations when converted. For instance, 200,000 Belarusian rubles equals $1.

The friendliness of foreigners also holds true for the varied hosts of all the accommodations she stays at: hostels, guesthouses, Airbnbs, yurts, a goat-herding camp, and with so-called couchsurfers who open their homes freely to foster authentic cultural awareness. (Can’t say that for the secret police hotel, but miraculously that worked out too.) Murray is on the lookout for connections, be it female friendships or perhaps another Russian love. Wide-open to possibilities, anything could happen.

Like a dreaded travel fear: being kidnapped. As the author describes the frightening scene she found herself alone in, in a self-styled taxi driven by a male with a male friend seated beside him (shared taxis generally the rule), a nightmare she and we conclude was an attempted abduction, not some major language mishap. Harrowing, but it did not deter the intrepid traveler.

Who goes on to ride the longest train route in the world, the Trans-Siberian Railway. For a month! Careful to portray only the most salient aspects, we learn there’s six legs on the Mongolia-to-Moscow route Murray chose (three options). Some span as long as twenty-three hours and more, with stopovers at five Russian cities. Except for the final destination, all unpronounceable and unknowable, certainly to me.

In fact, the whole trip is hard to imagine. Making Open Mic Night in Moscow a window into the unimaginable.


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Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over 2

Inspirational at any age (New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, California, 2005 to present): When a leading historian in the United States writes she was “born to paint,” we understand her need for creativity. That still doesn’t explain why at 64 an endowed professor at Princeton with an extensive list of accomplishments, awards, and honors would give all that up to become “An Artist.” Yet that’s exactly what Nell Irvin Painter did. Why?

For all the fascinating, artful, and enlightening aspects of Painter’s terrific memoir, her answer is fairly straightforward: because “she wanted to.”

The complete answer is a bit more complicated than that, but there’s great truth to the author’s inner passion and determination to lose herself in the “tactile sweetness” of the visual arts, quite different than her analytical career. Applying the same seriousness, curiosity, and discipline that led to her historian achievements, “intellectual sophistication” turned out to be a stinging obstacle the second time around.

For Painter, “creative ambition” seemed to have no bearing on becoming “An Artist” in the “Art World” (as opposed to thriving quietly in the world of art.) The Art World translates into getting noticed at galleries and museums, causing collectors to crave your work. Getting noticed, her art teachers deemed, was something “you’re born with.”

They told her she’d “never be an artist,” a stunning rebuke to someone whose seen the benefits of scholarship, hard work, practice, persistence. Here Painter’s deeply personal memoir expands philosophically, challenging “ontology or epistemology?” In this layman’s mind, likened to the Nature versus Nurture psychological dispute.

“Who defines what constitutes “An Artist”? the author asks, examines, adjusts to, and strives for in defiance of the 21st century Art World, at odds with her “twentieth century eyes.”

As you get to know Nell Painter through her intimate memoir, it becomes crystal-clear that dabbling on her own in the visual arts was not an option; jumping all in her only authentic choice. “After a lifetime of historical truth and political engagement with American society,” she became driven to express visually her perspectives on “the state of the world and about history” not just for the sheer joy of it but to be heard.

It’s important to point out that Painter had a fantastic role model for reinventing herself: at 65, her mother, Dona Irvin, spent ten years researching and writing her first book (The Unsung Heart of Black America), and at 75 devoted another ten writing her memoir (Wish I Could Look That Good When I’m That Old: An Older African-American Speaks to All Women in All of America.)

So the artist-striving historian plunges into art classes and art schools (and later residences) with remarkable youthful zest, mighty aspirations, a supportive husband (Glenn teaches at Rutgers University), and the means to do so.

The visual arts was not an entirely foreign notion. In the ’60s, the author lived in Ghana where she fell in love with colors: “a humid world of tropical contrasts and color-wheels.” Vibrant colors match her vibrant spirit, which is why her gray period at graduate arts school was so unsettling and compelling to the reader (see why below).

The author’s parents moved to California, where she experimented with sculpture as an undergraduate anthropology major at Berkeley. Later, her love of drawing, “of really seeing what I was looking at,” finds its way into some of her seven lauded books on what it means to be black and white in America. These include: Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol; Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present; and The History of White People she finished while juggling the pressures of graduate art school – which she came to view as “man’s inhumanity to man” – at a wrenching emotional period when her mother was dying and her father was chronically, clinically depressed.

Even before Painter left Princeton, she had a plan, taking two painting classes there. Followed by an intensive summer at the New York Studio School in Manhattan drawing and painting, a tiring commute (leaving her beloved home in the multi-cultural Ironbound district of Newark at 6am, returning at night). Yet this “marathon” delights and stirs her creative soul. Unlike her undergraduate and graduate art experiences, which were painfully humbling.

At the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, a student bluntly asked how old she was. It was the first time Painter had thought of herself as old. She’d already spent a lifetime fighting two other labels: being black and a woman in America. Not seeing herself as old until then speaks volumes about how progressive those 20th century eyes are.

Painter presses on. Rejected by her top graduate choice, Yale’s School of Art, she moved solo to Providence to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, RISD, her second preference. Here she soon found herself profoundly alone, marginalized and discriminated on account of age, sex, ethnicity, intellectualism, and purposefulness to incorporate “history history” into her art.

Painter approached RISD with the same fire in her belly as ever, but over time the outrageous lack of respect for who she was as a human being, and a person of exceptional productivity and credentials, and of course her art wore her down.

The historian-turned-artist does not mince words. Candidly and sharply, and sometimes profanely, she describes how badly RISD demoralized her. This shocks the reader, since we perceive Painter as wonderfully confident. “I was a star and a dud, simultaneously,” she asserts.

We don’t agree. To us she’s a shining star whose starred memoir treats us to absorbing discussions on the concepts, techniques, materials, and historical contexts of Painter’s Artmaking, engaging us through colorful prose and images of her work that accentuate the 320+ pages. That’s a total of 95 pictures, provided in a List of Images Appendix. These pale in comparison to the whole body of the artist’s contemporary works.

The range, conceptualism, and activism of these cutting-edge creations include: charcoal drawings, paintings, collages, silkscreen prints, woodcuts, lithographs, linoleum cuts, silhouettes, and something Painter landed on she calls “manual + digital:”

“Using found images and digital manipulation, I reconfigure the past and revision myself through self-portraits,” relishing the “freedom to be totally self-centered,” exploring where she fits in the world. … “Race the exhausting, existential reality of any black artist becoming known in America.”

Race is never far from her bold compositions and focus, intensified by her conclusion that “the Art World is as racist as hell and unashamed of it.”

All the more noteworthy then is the artist’s exuberance for everything involved in making art. From “the paper, the charcoal, the canvas, the setups, the model, the perspective, the shadows, the colors, the smell.” Everything except succumbing to caring about how others judged her work and looked down at her. When the “sacred” graduate art school “crits” failed to take her seriously, she eventually sought advice on the outside from art friends and colleagues, which buoyed her.

Since you can’t take the historian out of the artist, Old in Art School is also an art history primer on artists Painter admires. Most are modern, abstract expressionists and black artists, but by no means all of them.

Nell Irvin Painter’s art journey is an impressive uphill battle to be noticed. All you have to do is scroll through this website – – to appreciate how buzz worthy her artwork is. Just what the Art World is looking for! And she did it her way.

Painter’s mother was her inspiration. Now she’s ours.


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She Was the Quiet One

Solving a crime of betrayal (New Hampshire, present-day): Michele Campbell was a NYC Federal prosecutor for eight years before she turned to writing murder mysteries. She Was the Quiet One, her second crime novel (It’s Always the Husband, 2017), opens with the murder of a sixteen-year-old girl who is a twin. Does the taunting title suggest the quieter sister committed the crime? Or, was she the victim?

While it doesn’t take too long to identify the quiet one, it’s not until the end of Part I, as in quite a while, that you’ll know which sister was killed.  Does that mean her twin is the guilty one?

The author’s investigatory chops shine and enhance the suspense as she lays out, one by one, evidence regarding persons of interest. Though one of the sisters is at the center of the investigation, we’re not so gullible to think we’ve solved the mystery early on. So we read like a member of a jury whose job is to pay close attention to the testimony of the witnesses, and to the storylines about witnesses and other characters, doing our due diligence to put aside preconceived notions.

Transcripts of police interrogations show Campbell is adept at transferring her detective prowess into first-rate literary skills.

Interviews follow a pattern in which characters who knew the girls cough up something suggestive despite being quite guarded about saying much about the sisters and what went on at a very vulnerable time in their lives. The interviews, conducted by a State and a local law enforcement officer, are written in what feels like realistic police procedural dialogue. These either precede or follow chapters that are character storylines, which provide clues as to others who might have committed the crime. This non-linear approach is extremely effective. The opening investigation tells us about a murder that occurred in the middle of the book, and then we read about events that happened before or after later interrogations, also discussed in the detective interviews. These add up to a list of possible culprits beyond the quiet one.

Two mysteries then. Which sister was killed? Who did it?

Let’s start with Bel and Rose, the twins. Different as night and day. Bel is an undisciplined, blond knock-out; Rose a follow-the-rules, nerdy type. What they have in common is they’re orphans. Their father died when they were young; their bohemian mother just passed away. Forced to leave their home in California, they’re sent to live with their grandmother on her Connecticut estate, another emotional jolt. Grandma comes across as a cold-hearted, wealthy woman with a family legacy of alumnus who attended an elite private boarding school in New Hampshire: Odell Academy. (New England has the greatest number of prestigious boarding schools in the country). With the assistance of grandma’s loathsome attorney/boyfriend, Bel and Rose are shipped off to New Hampshire, another trauma.

Both are assigned to Moreland Hall, described as “gorgeous, like something out of a fairy tale. Ivory-covered brick and stone, Gothic arches, ancient windows with panes of wavy glass.” It’s a spread-out campus that borders a “thousand acre nature preserve” with a lake. Lost Lake is where the body of either Bel or Rose was discovered. Depending on the time of day and the constantly changing weather, this fairy-tale can look downright eerie. A perfect setting for a murder.

As for witnesses/other persons of interest, two are the sisters’ advisors, also their dorm heads and teachers. Sarah and Heath are married with two young children; they too are Odell alumni. Sarah is Rose’s advisor and math teacher, one of many subjects go-getter student Rose immerses herself in. Rose also babysits for the couple giving her a birds-eye-view of this family. Heath, then, is Bel’s advisor, also her English teacher. Sarah is a hard-working, plain Jane like Rose so they’re a fine match. In fact, Sarah is a better motherly fit than Rose’s artsy mother, who was much closer to unconventional Bel. As Bel’s attraction to a nasty crowd of senior girls is seen upon arrival – the onset of a rift between the two sisters – you can’t help but think Bel might have benefited from someone like Sarah to steady her.

Similarly, it wouldn’t have hurt Rose to have been paired with Heath. With his “movie-star” grin, he’s way too handsome for his own good cloistered with cliquish, mean-spirited, uppity, rich students used to manipulating and getting away with everything. Darcy and Tessa are the ringleaders (also suspects); Darcy’s boyfriend Brandon, a follower, becomes one too. Putting teaching credentials aside, Sarah and Heath have been (newly) brought in to improve the school’s naughty image.

Bel and Rose enter Odell at the beginning of the school year as sophomores, a distinct disadvantage. Raw over the recent death of their mother, abandoned again this time by their grandmother, they need each other more than ever. Yet each deals with loss in their own way, healthy and not.

On their very first day at Odell an incident occurs in the lunchroom that separates the sisters, foretelling the downward spiral of their relationship, testing the limits of the bond of sisterhood, playing into the plot. Could one hate the other so much she’d go to such extremes to kill the other? Perhaps, because the tension does get ugly. But Odell has had its share of scandals before.

Chapters alternate between what’s going on at Moreland versus investigating the murder from multiple perspectives. Many voices help us piece together bits and pieces to form judgments.

The first witness is Emma Kin, Bel’s roommate. (Another unfortunate pairing as Emma and Rose are well-matched for each other; become good friends.) Emma provides just enough information to glean Campbell’s provocative title might be intentionally misleading. She mentions some kind of an “attack” that “caused the most serious breach between them [Bel and Rose].” Her testimony signals to the police, and to us, the need to delve into what advisor Sarah knows. Sarah is the second witness questioned. She raises more suspicions.

As do others, including Rose’s former roommate who abruptly left the school causing shock waves; and Zach, who pines for Bel, then suddenly befriends Rose. Also reluctant to talk, he manages to confirm Darcy and Tessa “have no shame, no limits”; he also refers to big Brandon who intimidates.

As you weigh testimonies and narratives, you’re deciding who can be trusted. What stands out is how the author crafts their voices to let us see into their mindsets, their possible motives.

The language of the troublemakers is harsh. “People were malicious. They enjoyed inflicting pain,” Sarah says.

This so-called exclusive campus is indeed a secluded place. Replete with online bullying, stalking, harassment, “gossip traveled like fire in the wind,” leading and misleading us.

New England’s weather is another effective literary tool creating a spooky mood like music does for a scary movie. “Snow tasted of cold, bitter air, and the campus felt desolate, with the wind sweeping across the plaza, and the lights of the library disappearing in the white gusts.” Fog imagery channels dangers that lurk.

At the start of Part II, we know which sister’s life has been tragically cut short. The picture isn’t pretty. Neither is the school’s culture, except for those who seek to save it.


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Figuring out a something-gone-wrong love story (Cotswolds, England and LA, present-day): Ghosting as it applies to relationships is on the rise due to social media. According to the Urban Dictionary, to be ghosted means “someone you love disappears without explanation.”

The verb ghosted is of course the title of this romantically suspenseful, contemporary novel – and the plot. British author Rosie Walsh’s terrific literary sleight-of-hand debut uses techniques that guide our assumptions, but things are not always what they seem.

Sarah is the one ghosted. Eddie did the ghosting.

The reader’s head is wrapped around two burning questions: Why did he disappear after they’d just spent seven deliriously happy days falling madly in love? Sarah is convinced something awful happened to him. Her girlfriends presume this is just the way men behave, jilted themselves. Best friend Tommy’s not so sure.

Sarah, soon-to-be divorced, and single Eddie are both approaching forty, so when they serendipitously meet along a peaceful country road in England’s picturesque Cotswolds, spend seven love-struck days together and come away each believing they’d met the one, we believe them.

Some evidence: on the eighth day, Eddie seems genuinely bummed out that he has to leave Sarah for a planned week of surfing in Spain with a friend. His desire to cancel the trip not to lose a minute with Sarah before she returns to LA, where she now lives, feels heartfelt too. Sarah insists he go, agreeing to meet back at the airport upon his return. Eddie professes, also seemingly truthful, that “this has been the best week of my life,” echoing Sarah’s feelings. Too good to be true? Because he never shows up. Initial thought: a surfing accident?

It’s natural Sarah might expect Eddie to have called before he boarded the plane. And it wasn’t unreasonable for her to be glued to her phone constantly checking for an email, a text, a Facebook message while he was gone. We relate to her growing worry not hearing a word from him, as if he’d been a ghost. Surreal and heartbreaking for someone who already had her heart broken years ago.

We’ve been primed to feel the emotional toll of being ghosted on page one. An epilogue of sorts delivered in a letter, one of many that pop up throughout. Some like this leading one are addressed to Dear You, signed by Me: “It’s exactly nineteen years since that luminous morning when we smiled and said goodbye,” it begins, ending with “I will never stop looking for you.” Presumably never sent. A journal entry to cope with the “pain of love” and the “loss of self it precipitates”?

The sender’s sorrowful voice must be Sarah’s, who proceeds to fill us in on those seven love-infused days, starting with Day Seven: When We Both Knew. Alternating chapters introduce a woman flabbergasted by her weakness having found the strength to reconstruct her shattered life. How could “a woman who’d traveled the world, survived a tragedy, run a charity” let herself fall apart again?

We intuit from the get-go (page five) that the tragedy cited involved her younger “sunbeam of a sister” Hannah, related to a fuzzy reference to an accident during Sarah’s teen years when they grew up in England’s countryside in one of those picture-postcard Cotswold villages, Frampton Mansell.

Brian Robert Marshall / Cottages in Frampton Mansell
via Wikimedia Commons

Sarah’s parents still live in the village (her grandfather a few hours away), so every June she comes back to visit them. She breathes in its “smell of warm grass,” wildflowers, peacefulness, which Walsh beautifully breathes into her prose. But everywhere she goes she also breathes in the sweetness and innocence of Hannah’s memories. That’s why after the mysterious accident, Sarah fled to LA. More mysteries. What happened to Hannah whose memories haunt Sarah?

It’s on a recent June visit, around the time of the Brexit referendum (2016), that Sarah meets Eddie.

The charity portion of Sarah’s bio is significant as it relates to another type of all-powerful love and loss: motherhood. Co-founded with her husband of seventeen years, Clown Doctors use specially trained performers to comfort sick, fearful hospitalized children. Sarah couldn’t, wouldn’t bring a child into their marriage (the cause of the rift) believing she doesn’t deserve to.

Did you know there’s a real Dr. Patch Adams? (We miss you Robin Williams.) Sarah’s charity is inspired by the one founded twenty-some years ago in New York, spreading to the UK and around the globe.

When Sarah meets Eddie a mile from her childhood home, we understand her immediate reaction: “What a relief to talk to someone who knew nothing of the sadness I was meant to be suffering.” Doesn’t take long for her to see him as an “ebullient, handsome man, sweeping into a part of the world I’d come to dread, painting everything in bright colors.”

Much of their days are tucked away in Eddie’s wooden barn (a carpenter, he loves wood). Days so full of “the lightness, the ease, the laughter” Sarah doesn’t dare mess up by telling him why she left a nature’s paradise. A terrible omission.

To be fair, there’s something Eddie hasn’t told her either. His truth blindsided me, not because Sarah is an unreliable narrator, rather, she was blindsided too. When you don’t see this bombshell coming, you get so engrossed like I did, missing my morning coffee ritual, reading straight through to noon! There’s more than one bombshell, but the first one makes you realize you’d assumed too much. At that tipping point, about half-way through, you cannot put this book down, in step with frenzied Sarah.

Since Sarah and Eddie have hidden some crucial things, I can’t share more about their storylines without spoiling the surprises. What I can say is more about Sarah’s amazing friendships. Without them, who knows how she would have fared.

Tommy from childhood was a victim of bullying in school. Sarah consoled and looked out for him whenever he’d “cry, again and again and again,” similar to how she fiercely protected her sister and watched over her sister’s friend Alex, often hanging out with them. It’s Tommy’s house Sarah rushes to in that distressing week waiting for Eddie; Jo, close friends with both, is there too. Jo’s precocious son provides the devoted-to-motherhood theme, which also plays out when Sarah returns to LA and bares her soul with caring friend and assistant Jenni very depressed at learning another fertility treatment failed. Yet she “postponed her own grief so she could look after mine.” Special friendships, a special kind of love.

Walsh, a former documentary producer who grew up in the Cotswolds, has produced a stirring novel you can picture as a film you’d want to see. You read the blurbs, thought you knew what it was going to be about. You’re partly right until it’s nothing like you’d imagined.


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