Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Ghost Orchid -- Carol Goodman

Due to summer travels and back-to-school commitments, it's been quite a while since I've had a chance to post a book review. The Ghost Orchid is Carol Goodman's latest to be released in paperback; she has another novel, The Sonnet Lover, which came out in hardback this summer to mixed reviews (though very highly recommended by my mother-in-law, an avid reader who has read all 5 of her works).

Goodman's novels all tend to follow the same basic structure: a young woman of some artistic skill, and with a tumultuous romantic past, stumbles upon a mysterious death or two that seem to have literary significance and be connected, in some way, to the symbol of water. Goodman herself admits this in the Reader's Guide that follows her narrative:
I suppose...I'm drawn to bodies of water: rivers, lakes, oceans...I'm an Aquarius...and I love to swim. With The Ghost Orchid I thought I'd subvert (literally) the whole water thing by putting the water underground[.] (340, Random House 2007 edition)
Despite seeming a bit formulaic, Goodman's novels are gracefully written, the mystery in each compels the reader onward, and a literary-minded reader finds delight in the allusions to classic poetry, fiction, and art.

The Ghost Orchid is certainly no exception to Goodman's usual routine. Here, Goodman's main character, Ellis Brooks (yet another water reference), is a young writer attempting to finish her first work -- a historical mystery (!) -- while staying at a writer's retreat in upstate New York. Ellis, we find out early on, is the daughter of a mystic, and seems to have some otherworldly powers of her own that both help and hinder her progress on her novel, the retelling of another mystic's mysterious stay at the very same location a century earlier. As Ellis writes, she finds that she uncovers more and more of the truth behind the mystic, Corinth Blackwell's (the water imagery becomes more and more heavy-handed throughout), relationship to the retreat's founder, Aurora Latham, and her missing daughter.

The structure of the novel is its best feature; Goodman weaves together both the narrative about Ellis as well as the narrative Ellis is writing; sometimes the book-within-a-book helps us to tie up loose ends and move the mystery forward, and sometimes it is the opposite. This back-and-forth style also gives us a better understanding of both Ellis and Corinth, either of whom could easily be called the main character here; the similarities between the two women become more important as the plot thickens.

And thickens it does -- too much, in fact. Goodman tries to incorporate too many other works within her own, and the storyline becomes unwieldly. If she had remained true to her previous style and relied solely on mythological allusions, she could have avoided this problem, but Goodman also weaves in Native American legends here, along with Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, and sonnets by Goodman's husband, and without the usual seamless grace exhibited in works such as The Lake of Dead Languages and The Seduction of Water. Perhaps it is because Goodman isn't as acquainted with these legends as she is with the Greek and Roman tales she taught when she worked as a boarding-school teacher. It's unfortunate, because the Saratoga setting for the novel lends itself well to including Native American imagery, but here it simply seems awkward: from Ne-Moss-i-Ne to the redwing blackbird story, we never really feel a sense of satisfaction when the plot aligns itself with these allusions because it can't, successfully, when there are so many.

And that's the tragedy here: the title of the novel never truly comes to fruition. Goodman clearly wanted to avoid using yet another water reference, but her choice of The Ghost Orchid is puzzling: why didn't she remain with her original working title, Blackwell? Though ghost orchids figure into the narrative, the symbolism isn't nearly as clear as using Corinth's last name would have been. Just as the ghost orchid is mentioned in the novel as a flower that eludes our grasp, so does the title elude our understanding.

The Ghost Orchid is a page-turner and Goodman's fans will be happy to add this novel to their collection of her works, as I did. However, she'll either need to get completely away from the structure she relied on for her first three novels so successfully, or she'll simply need to embrace it wholeheartedly. Trying to capitalize on her earlier success but reject the formula makes for a tepid tale.

For the unitiated, Goodman's The Drowning Tree is my favorite of her novels; it is a mystery surrounding a stained glass window and Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott," and it is the most cleverly written of her first four books.

final verdict: **1/2

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