The death of her beloved twin provokes a woman to excavate the fragments of a long-buried past.
Tucker (The Cure for Modern Life, 2008, etc.) begins with Lila Cole, a literature professor with an unusually strong attachment to stories and characters, whose life has just been wrested from its calm by her brother Billy’s suicide. We retrace recent history to learn that Billy was the gatekeeper of the twins’ shared history, having gone to great lengths to obliterate a painful childhood. Independent of her brother, Lila knows very little of her life’s narrative, a fact that his death suddenly brings to her attention. Billy’s quest for reinvention has failed, as witness his suicide, but the author nevertheless meditates on the futility of such efforts throughout. When Lila first meets her husband, for example, she is ruminating on why Twain sends Jim back into slavery in Huckleberry Finn, after Jim has made such sacrifices to escape. We all have to go back eventually, the novel tells us. Lila does, and the suspenseful developments that ensue constitute the book’s principal attraction. Rather less appealing is the dialogue, which often seems like a tool for tying up loose plot points rather than for illuminating the characters’ emotional depths. There isn’t much to be teased out here, aside from the mystery the author is plainly constructing regarding Billy and Lila’s past. Still, the lure of discovering the Cole family’s secrets serves as a powerful motivator, and Tucker does a perfect job of parceling out the details. Readers with an attachment to American literature will also enjoy the parallels with Twain and Melville that run throughout.
If the characters had as much depth as the plot, this would be a very satisfying novel.