Tuesday, March 30, 2010

ARCADIA FALLS: Secret Love Child?

I feel like I can shout, “I’m back, reading world!” I have spent the past few days hunkered down with all the books that are coming in (I treated myself to a little shopping spree on Amazon, and I re-read a couple of my old favorites while I was waiting for the new books). I feel refreshed, and my addiction to reading has started anew. I kicked off my new reading list by reading Carol Goodman’s Arcadia Falls.

My overall opinion is that Arcadia Falls is another wonderful Goodman book that I will treasure and look forward to re-reading. And yet… it is another Goodman book. There are qualities I abosutely adore about Goodman’s style of writing--her ability to fuse academia with fairy tales and/or mythology and/or folklore with a current storyline is not only refreshing but also intellectually invigorating. I adore her work, and by extension, I adore her. However, about a fourth of the way into her new book, I felt like I was re-experiencing The Lake of Dead Languages but with a fairy tale twist (instead of a mythology twist), which then led me to this conclusion: If books could reproduce, Arcadia Falls would be the secret love child of The Lake of Dead Languages and The Seduction of Water.

Of the two, The Lake of Dead Languages was definitely the dominant gene, but The Seduction of Water left its trace on their love child with a fairy tale surreptitiously based on a secret life of one of the characters playing an integral role in the story overall.

The similarities between The Lake of Dead Languages and Arcadia Falls extend from the settings to the characters to the plots themselves.

  • Setting: both books are set primarily in a boarding school in upstate New York, and in both books, the story's climax takes place in the dead of winter (with the primary character having to drive in a snowstorm to get back to the school to stop the madness going on there).

  • Characters: both books feature a single mother (in one, a divorced mother with a young daughter; in the other, a widowed mother with a not-as-young daughter) who, at the beginning of the book, begins teaching at said school in upstate New York and who, at the end of the book, discovers something new about herself.

  • Plot: both books have the plot thicken with the untimely death of a student (there are even similarities in two of the death scenes); both books have a twist in the plot that then shows the characters have been operating under false assumptions; both books have a hidden journal that plays an integral role in the plot development.

Going through the similarities (I could go further, but I don’t want to be too much of a spoil sport for anyone who wants to read either or both books) makes me wonder if some of the similarities are borne out of Goodman’s own life or her fascination with particular themes and possible twists in stories.

Her books have an undercurrent theme of "people aren’t who they seem to be." This theme is often hand-in-hand with another theme in her books: "people who don't know their own pasts can be hurt by that lack of knowledge in the present/future." The ones to blame for those characters not knowing their own pasts are often the characters' parents. Perhaps the moral to her stories is for parents to be honest with their children about their pasts. I am so intrigued I'm considering doing more research on Carol Goodman to find out if this is something that is a moral for her own life story.

In Arcadia Falls, she focuses on a specific fairy tale called The Changeling Girl, which was oddly reminiscent of the fairy tale written for The Seduction of Water (The Selkie’s Daughter). In both books, the fairy tale provided the backdrop for the main story line so that in a way the fairy tale mirrored something going on in the plot and, in fact, provided some of the underlying reasons for why characters in the book weren't who they seemed to be.

While pointing out all the similarities, the books have enough differences that even if you’ve read one book, I’d still suggest reading the other books. Although I felt, at times, that I was re-experiencing The Lake of Dead Languages, I also felt that Goodman had pulled out the best parts of The Lake of Dead Languages and of The Seduction of Water to write a book that demonstrates her growth as a writer. It’s like reading a reinvention of a familiar story; in fact, the fairy tale in Arcadia FallsThe Changeling Girl, was itself a reinvention--the fairy tale began as one story and, over time, morphed into a new story based on the storyteller’s life changes. I like to think that by reading all three books, I’ve managed to witness a reinvention of a story Carol Goodman considers personal (whether that “personal” aspect is autobiographical in any way is--as of right now--unknown to me).

If you've read these books, what do you think? Do you agree with my assessment?

Happy reading!

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