It takes the disappearance of her Great-Aunt Eva to get Towner Whitney back home to Salem. She’s avoided the place for fifteen years, ever since her twin sister Lyndley’s death and her own committal to a mental hospital. Now she returns to a house that feels like Eva is still in it - only Eva is dead, floating in the harbour well away from the area where she used to swim, and Towner stands to inherit almost everything if she will stick around to see to the care of her blind Aunt Emma.
As much as Towner wants to run back to California, she stays, confronting her eccentric mother May, who rarely leaves the island where she hides women fleeing abusive men, such memories as she possesses of the time before Lyndley died, and the images that like all the Whitney women she can see in pieces of lace. Two other reasons to remain are detective John Rafferty and his latest case, the desperate search for a missing teenager. Angela Rickey is a runaway who joined the cult run by Cal Boynton, Towner’s uncle whose abuse cost Emma her sight, and who might just have killed Eva. When Towner tries to help Angela it puts both of them in danger, for Cal isn’t fond of his niece and if there’s one thing his followers love it’s a good witch hunt.
How do you read a book whose main character tells you on the first page that she’s a liar who cannot be trusted? I tried maintaining a degree of scepticism but soon gave that up as I was drawn too far into the story to do anything other than just keep turning the pages. Honest or not, Towner is an engaging character and the mystery is there from the start, and it gets progressively more complex - it contains far more twists than can be mentioned without spoilers. There are enough other characters around her to give the truth to much of what she says and the women are fantastic. It’s a shame Eva didn’t have a larger part in the novel as she sounds like a character I’d love to spend time with (and how wonderful would it be to step into the book and into her tea room, to get a lace reading and see the coterie of women who wear purple coats and red hats as a sign of their refusal to age quietly?) Ann Chase, the town’s leading witch, scares off Cal’s crazies by “cursing” them - i.e. quoting a fragment of Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin. May was never much of a mother but she’s dedicated to improving the lives of the women who come to her for help, training and employing them as lacemakers and standing up to the men who come looking for them - husbands and police alike, with a shotgun if necessary.
Best of all, it turned out to be one of my favourite sorts of books - one where the heroine saves the day and herself without assistance from a man. In this case, saved Angela and Angela’s unborn child, too. It was only Towner’s intelligence and nerve which got them to safety. And I loved the excerpts from Eva Lace Reader’s Guide which prefaced each chapter. It really seems as if, were you to thread them together in order, you could have a go at lace reading yourself. Not only is the process described, but a few pieces of attendant folklore as well.
However, the ending threw up a few twists too many for my liking. Every good protagonist needs obstacles to overcome, but I felt those heaped on Towner were excessive, and wondered about the possible future of someone so damaged. And the touch of the paranormal broadened to the point of stretching my credibility. Overall, it’s a book I’m glad I read. (And now I’d love to try my hand at making lace!)