Bohjalian (Skeletons at the Feast, 2008, etc.) returns with a story of violence.
Part I opens with the first-person testimony of Stephen Drew, minister to a Baptist congregation in Haverill, Vt., that includes Alice Hayward, whose husband George tops off years of beatings by strangling her after dinner on the day she chose to be baptized. It quickly becomes clear that Stephen and Alice had been lovers, and the weirdly distanced description of the guilt he feels about her death is creepy even before we realize that George may not have shot himself after killing his wife, and Stephen is the top suspect in the eyes of deputy state’s attorney Catherine Benincasa. The narration of Part II is problematic; while Stephen is arrogant and self-absorbed, Catherine is vengefully obsessed with the violence against women she sees in her work. The portrait of the Hayward marriage that emerges from both accounts is grimly predictable (angry, controlling man; passive, isolated woman). The novel improves dramatically with the narration in Part III of Heather Laurent, author of bestselling books about angels who has a brief affair with Stephen in the aftermath of Alice’s murder. Heather’s father killed her mother and then himself when she was 14, and she thinks she can help both Stephen and 15-year-old Katie Hayward, Alice and George’s daughter, deal with their trauma. Heather’s depiction of her parents’ marriage has the specificity and complexity missing from the collage portrait of the Haywards, though her fixation on angels never amounts to anything more than a fictional device. Part IV, narrated by Katie, has a somber power as the girl imagines her parents’ last hours.
A schematic tale of battered wives, murderous husbands and the consequences for their traumatized daughters.