For author Kim Edwards, the follow-up to her first novel was never going to be easy. The Memory Keeper's Daughter sold modestly when it appeared in 2005, garnering a Barnes and Noble Discovery Award and the Kentucky Literary Award for Fiction. Then it took off, riding word-of-mouth buzz to become a New York Times No. 1 bestseller in paperback and the bestselling novel of the last five years on The Globe and Mail's 2009 year-end list. Translated into myriad languages, it spawned a made-for-TV movie starring Emily Watson and Gretchen Mol.
Like her first book, Edwards's sophomore novel, The Lake of Dreams, weaves a story of painful, hushed-up family secrets. But while The Memory Keeper's Daughter spilled its explosive secret at the beginning - a newborn with Down syndrome is abandoned by her physician father, who tells her mother and "normal" twin brother she died - Edwards's new book is a detective story that saves its big revelations for the very end.
Its reluctant sleuth is Lucy Jarrett, a 29-year-old hydrologist who is between jobs, living a contented if listless life in Japan with her boyfriend, Yoshi. It's not long before Lucy's past intrudes on her unmoored existence, however. Learning that her mother has been hurt in a car accident, Lucy flies back to her sleepy, close-knit upstate New York hometown, The Lake of Dreams.
There, Lucy discovers her family roots have "an invisible gravity, almost irresistible." She is still deeply troubled by her father's accidental drowning a decade earlier, which she partially blames on her refusal to go fishing with him that day. And she struggles to sort out her feelings for Keegan, her old high-school beau, who has quit riding motorcycles and now runs a touristy artisanal glass factory.
That's when Lucy unexpectedly stumbles upon an even bigger bit of dirty family laundry in the form of yellowing papers in a secret cupboard in the cupola of her mother's big, rambling house. They bear the name of an ancestor she has never heard of, a mysterious woman she only knows as Rose, who apparently lived a century before. There was a scandal, and her child was taken away.
Haunted by ghosts she ran halfway around the world to forget, Lucy throws herself into the search for Rose. Clues reveal themselves (almost too readily) in stained-glass windows, in patterns on fabric, in names. Lucy finds herself becoming more passionately invested every day, even growing to love this strange woman who seemingly defied the conventions of her time: She modelled for an artist, wanted to be a priest, joined the suffragette movement and never wed.
Having grown up hearing tales of Joseph Arthur Jarrett - her illustrious great-grandfather who saw Halley's Comet and who founded the family locksmith and hardware business - Lucy is puzzled, then angered at the way Rose's name has been redacted from family lore. Her search begins to ruffle relatives' feathers, as some seem to have a vested interest in keeping family skeletons in the closet.
To tell more would do the book a disservice. Suffice to say that Lucy's quest for Rose's identity slowly becomes a quest for her own, a way to bring her life's drifting, scattered fragments into focus.
Like other stories of inquisitive, often unfulfilled characters drawn to the exciting lives of generations ago (Julie Powell's Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously fame comes to mind, with her fixation on Julia Child), The Lake of Dreams attempts to draw gravity and allure from the history it mines.
Edwards's pen has a wanderlust, a restlessness that propels the narrative from past to present and from New York City to England and Jakarta. The novel is rich in historical detail, clearly the fruit of decent research into early New York feminist circles: Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This is both a good and a bad thing. Though Edwards has a trademark ability to spin a good yarn, the plot often snags and drags as its distracting tangents multiply.
And while The Memory Keeper's Daughter got page-turning power from a shocking premise, Edwards seems almost determined to keep her new tale from being too implausible. In the process, she has denied it some spark.
The Lake of Dreams is a kind of mystery novel of the self, about a woman caught in the undertow of history. It may not have the blockbuster potential of Edwards's first book, but it grips in a quieter, gentler way.
Sarah Barmak is a Toronto journalist who writes regularly about ideas and culture.