Cerebral mystery from classy bestseller Goodman (The Seduction of Water, 2003, etc.).
A magnificent stained-glass window at Penrose College (“a bastion of East Coast wealth and privilege”) holds hidden clues, and alumna Christine Webb, an art history lecturer now in her mid-40s, calls attention to each one as she stands in front of it. Though beautiful blond Christine bears an uncanny resemblance to the translucent, shimmering female figure the window portrays, the model was the wife of Augustus Penrose, a turn-of-the-century glassmaker, artist, and founder of the college. Christine explains the allegorical significance of the complex image at great length (and in excessive detail), tracing its connection to Romantic poetry, pre-Raphaelite painting, Greek myth, nascent feminism, and so on as the well-heeled women in the audience listen intently. Then her best friend from college, Juno McKay, is shocked to see Christine suddenly bathed in a blood-red glow, owing to a trick of the light. A college legend says that this presages death, and soon enough Christine disappears. When she’s found drowned alongside an overturned kayak, the question becomes: Did she commit suicide (with the help of a drug overdose perhaps) or was she murdered? Juno begins to follow the twisting threads of Penrose family history until a pattern emerges. It seems that Augustus married Eugenie, the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer who bought the Penrose glass company, but he truly loved her younger sister Clare, whose fragile sanity then cracked, culminating in an attempt at suicide by drowning. The discovery of Clare’s subsequent mental breakdown leads Juno to a century-old institution for the insane near the Hudson River, where still more secrets are revealed, as well as the present-day villains of the piece. But it is the long-dead sisters, entwined forever by love and hate, who fascinate.
A touch overwrought, a touch didactic, but haunting nonetheless.