If you could change lives with someone else, would you? Even if the change means you could not go back to your old self? Carol Goodman uses this twist on the changeling folktale as the premise for her latest novel, Arcadia Falls. Reading a new Goodman novel is like going back to visit an old friend – like Anita Shreve, you know you will get a good story, and with Goodman you expect to be comfortably wrapped in her allusions to literature, while she is seducing you with murder and Gothic mayhem.
Goodman gives a passing nod to Bruno Bettlehiem’s The Uses of Enchantment in the novel. Bettleheim gave a Freudian perspective to the witches and monsters in fairy tales, and, for some students of literature – took away the magic – like having a poem explained or a painter’s strokes dissected.
But Carol Goodman is all magic – giving credibility to folktales and fairy tales by matching her story to one that you might have heard as a child. Like all good fairy tales, there are monsters, maidens, and heroes – but Goodman’s characters live in the real world. Using the Bettleheim premise that fairy tales need to be read and applied, Goodman creates an enticing Gothic tale – full of mysterious women-in-white in the mist, and murder in the glade.
Meg Rosenthal is starting a new job as a high school English teacher at Arcadia Falls, a private upper New York boarding school, after her husband has died and left her and her teenage daughter penniless. As with her other novels, Goodman links the setting to the main character’s academic research. In this case, Meg is an expert in folklore and the history of Arcadia Falls connects to her work.
As the story unfolds, the changeling motif becomes the focus – connecting the fairy tale of the changeling to the changing lives of Meg and her daughter in a new place – a chance to reinvent themselves. Before long, the story evolves into investigations of murder and true identities. The teenage girls and the mother-daughter relationships that become central to the action will sometimes make you smile – sometimes make you shudder – in their realistic depictions that may be more Greek tragedy than Freud.
Goodman will take you to the precipice of fright (literally) more than once, but, in the end, she knows how to wrap it all up – neatly and satisfactorily – maybe a little contrived – but you can forgive that – happy endings are a relief after so much anxious uncertainty.