Once Upon a Time…a few books with happy endings

No matter the journey – from Moriarty’s clever twists and heart-stopping foils to Elizabeth Berg’s magical realism, Diane Setterfield’s Gothic mystery, and Tara Westover’s shocking revelations – when the ending neatly slays the dragons, and the good guys win – all is well with the story.

51-+rlhp5gl._ac_us218_Nine Perfect Strangers

Liane Moriarty knows how to spin a tale and she does not disappoint in her latest page turner Nine Perfect Strangers.  Nine strangers at an upscale spa connect in her tale of self discovery, with humor, mystery, and a few heart stopping thrills.  Each has a different motive for signing up for the ten day rejuvenation plan, from the young couple who need marriage counseling after winning the lottery to the overwrought romance writer who has been taken in by an internet scam.  Others include the thirty something woman with four girls whose husband left her for a twenty something, a handsome gay divorce attorney, an over-the-hill sports hero, and a grieving family of three. Throw in a Russian overachiever with diabolical intent, and Moriarty once again has produced a fun and thrilling fast ride.

513lhruwtul._ac_us218_Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Setterfield creates a Gothic mystery around a “dark and stormy night” during the winter solstice over one hundred years ago with a mute child brought back from the dead after drowning in the river.  Three separate families claim the girl as their own – Helena and Anthony Vaughan believe she’s their kidnapped daughter; Robert and Bess Armstrong think she’s their illegitimate grandchild ; and Lily White hopes she’s her lost sister.  As the plot meanders through the town and the river, I sometimes got lost in the flashbacks. The complicated mystery is solved quickly at the end, but the rapid decompression may give you the bends.  Like Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale, Once Upon a River has scenes shifting through time with strong characters at the helm.

th  Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg knows how to dish out comfort, and in Night of Miracles the food helps.  You’ll be salivating at the midnight chocolate cake, the butterscotch dreams, and the cream cheese lemon bars   Lucille Howard from The Story of Arthur Trulove returns in the familiar town of Mason, Missouri, where she is now at eighty-eight years old teaching classes on baking.  Arthur’s adopted daughter, Maddy, and his granddaughter, continue to be a part of her life.  A few new characters add flavor:  Iris Winters, looking for a fresh start in a new town; Monica, the waitress; Tiny, a local man and frequent customer pining for Monica; the young couple next door to Lucille facing a health crisis, and their son Lincoln. When Lucille receives an ethereal night visitor in her dreams, the angel of death in jeans and a flannel shirt,  you will wonder if no more sequels are forthcoming.  Nonetheless, the story is full of good people doing good things for each other – oblivious of the rancor in the outside world – a tonic and a lesson of hope.

41qzuq2h2wl._ac_us218_Educated by Tara Westover

If happy endings make you smile, this coming of age memoir will make you gasp.  With a fundamentalist upbringing on a Morman Idaho homestead, Tara Westover embellishes her hard journey to success and graduate degrees in Education.  Although she admits she might have gotten some of the facts mixed up, memory being what it is (especially when you’ve suffered a number of head injuries from car crashes and beatings), Westover’s harrowing account of survival is sometimes difficult to digest.  Her tale is her catharsis, but not everyone will want to know all those details. Hopefully, she’ll move on to using her Cambridge Ph.D. to write about other topics.

Bellman and Black

9781476711959_p0_v6_s260x420Diane Setterfield’s strange new fiction – Bellman and Black – is an eerie mystery with rooks (related to crows) as the force behind the lives of the characters. The plot is reminiscent of an Edgar Allen Poe tale – with dark abstract references to death, greed, and apathy.

After 10-year-old Will Bellman kills a young rook with his slingshot, a mysterious presence lurks in the background of his life. As the boys who were with him – friends and a wealthy cousin – die young, Will prospers as the owner of the town mill, eventually marrying and having children. At each funeral, Will leads the congregation in mournful song until a plague takes his wife and three of his children. His daughter, Dora, is saved on the brink of death by Will’s bargain with the dark stranger who mysteriously appears on the outskirts of each graveside service.

As Dora’s health improves, Will turns his attention to a new venture, an emporium for funeral services that includes clothing and accouterments for the deceased as well as the bereaved. Once again, business flourishes, and Will creates a silent partnership with his graveside savior, not knowing his name, but calling him Black.

The soft ending is not macabre, as I’d expected, but Setterfield is careful to include images that will linger in your mind. The message that life goes on and death is inevitable, no matter how much money the successful accumulate, is tempered with a warning to be accountable.

Setterfield inserts enigmatic information about the black birds between her chapters, prompting readers to associate the character Black with a rook. The references motivated me to find the nonfiction that had inspired her – Mark Cocker’s “Crow Country ” – to learn more about the birds who are both the villains and heroes of her story. The myths and habits of these birds – the crow, raven, rook – have long been evocative of death.

Setterfield set the bar high with her first book, The Thirteenth Tale,  and Bellman and Black seems long-winded by comparison, with too much detailed descriptions of the mill’s operations and the itemization of mourning items. Nevertheless, this book has that same Gothic flavor and dark Victorian mystery that fans of Setterfield expect and will enjoy – a nice break from the cheery optimism of this time of year – a little savory to balance the sugar.

the Distant Hours

I cannot tell you about my latest read – “the sacrilege of just blurting out what had taken chapters to build, secrets hidden carefully by the author behind countless sleights of hand…” (Kate Morton).  And the possibility that you won’t like it as much as I did would hurt too much.

But if you enjoyed Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale or if you are a fan of Carol Goodman’s The Lake of Dead Languages – or even Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind…

if you love to reread Jane Eyre… you might try Kate Morton’s latest – The Distant Hours.  

In her third gothic mystery, this time within a castle during World War II as the setting, Morton uses an undelivered letter reappearing fifty years later to trigger the search into a mother’s past that leads to a delicious unraveling of characters and plot.

Starting slowly and with detailed description that annoyingly slows down the narrative, Morton lost me several times to her nostalgia before yanking me back to the mystery.  Satisfying and comforting, the Distant Hours is an escape – easy to get lost in it for a long time, and leaving you a little startled when it ends.

Related Posts: