If you found a long-lost private diary written by a woman who died under mysterious circumstances, would you read it? What if that woman was one of the founders of the school where you are currently employed? What if you are living in that woman’s former home? What if you are writing your thesis on this woman and her work? What if, less than two pages into the diary- webs of secrets start to untangle?
it takes her WEEKS to finish it. Despite it being the topic of her research. Despite more mysterious deaths happening on-campus. Despite major revelations. Despite other people hungry to get their hands on that diary. Meg takes her sweet, sweet time. How does she spend the time when she is not reading that must-read diary? Mostly by being a total fool.
I want so badly to feel for Meg, and I wanted very badly to like this book. Unfortunately, Meg and company (most notably Goodman and audio performer Jen Taylor) spend most of their time wasting my time.
Almost 13 hours of the new year were spent listening to Arcadia Falls, and I would like that time back. “But Cait! Time enjoyed wasted-” let me cut you off right there, Mr. Russell. The time was NOT enjoyed. The time spent with Arcadia Falls was time that I could have spent listening to something worth while, but here we are!
There was a list of things going in that should have held my attention: boarding schools, folk lore, early 20th century artist colonies, crumbling convents in upstate New York, deaths under mysterious circumstances- but all of those things fell flat in a soupy mess of bad decisions, clunky dialogue, and a strange desire from the author to tie up every single plot point in a fleur-de-lis patterned bow. Why a fleur-de-lis? Well, the diary belonged to a woman named Lily and this book is one of the least subtle pieces I have ever come across.
I try to have patience for Meg, as she has suddenly lost all that she has known in her adult life. Her husband dies unexpectedly, and she has to sell-off her life of privilege and move upstate in order to provide for her (understandably) sulky teen daughter, Sally. Meg was an art student, but then she was a mother instead. I do not mean to be flippant here; this novel is obsessed with the idea that a woman must choose between being an artist or being a mother and wife. These ideas are blatant and obvious in the diary portions, but they are long-lasting and -well, also obvious- in the modern day sections as well.
Fortunately? Strangely? Plot-mechanically? Meg has been offered a teaching position at a boarding school that was once an artist’s colony. Meg has no experience teaching, and has not worked outside of her home since she was a teenager. She has been asked to fill a last-minute opening as a teacher of folklore and literature. She has been working on her Ph.D., and while she has not completed it (nor is she certified to teach!) her research is all about the women who founded the artist’s colony and school: Vera Beecher and Lily Eberhardt. The Dean offers her the position, housing on campus, and a full-scholarship for the school to her daughter all based on the fact that Meg is studying and writing about the school. That’s it. That’s the whole set-up. Woman who grew up liking one particular fairly tale written and illustrated by two ladies who also founded a school remains interested in those ladies and is given a teaching position because she is such a big fan.
Yes, I know, all characters do not need to be likeable. All characters do not need to make good choices. All fiction does not have to be solidly grounded in fact…but…Meg is there to teach folklore and is absolutely shocked, confused, and judgmental when presented with very common-place things like May Day celebrations and bonfires. She spends the drive up to the school obsessively narrating the meaning of every tree, hill, and building on campus to her daughter and is again shocked when she is presented with the exact same things that she described on the way up. She has spent her life reading and re-reading the work of Lily Eberhardt and is blown away by the contents of her diary, BUT STILL WAITS WEEKS TO READ THE BOOK. I’m trying to have patience for her. She’s experienced some major trauma, she’s dealing with a lot of grief, she’s struggling to maintain a relationship with her daughter- but this folklore expert is aghast when confronted by anything that she deems “Pagan” with a sneer and a shudder.
The school itself, Arcadia, is also without rhyme or reason. There is a student death almost immediately into the fall semester, and there is nary a concerned parent or guidance counselor in sight. This school is steeped in the fine arts, but every painting and sculpture is of the same woman, Lily Eberhardt. Even the paintings she made frequently feature her own face, or the face of her partner Vera. I am walking the line here of art vs. not art, which is not my intention, but I find it incredibly strange that every artist mentioned in this book, be they current students or original founders of the colony, only write about, sculpt, and paint the things that are immediately in their view. The art teacher is always painting the view outside of her window. The Dean is always sketching the view outside of her window. If people aren’t drawing and sculpting Lily herself, then they are drawing, sculpting and carving lilies into every decorative inch of their lives. Every fairy tale is a true account, every character that they run into becomes a character in their story, everything is a mirror of a mirror of a mirror.
Other problems: Meg referring to the teenage students as her “only friends”, the Sherriff just wandering around grumbling to near-strangers about murder investigations, endless lists of name-dropping, and a girl who curses up a storm from chapter one but uses “frack” instead of “fuck” towards the end of the book without every subbing a curse or mentioning any interest in Battlestar Galactica.
This novel struggles with voice. The modern day portions and the diary excerpts are too similar- the diary itself being written like a novel full of dialogue does not help- and high school juniors in 2010 throw around “loser” like they are 12-year-olds in 1999. The voice issue gets worse when in audio. Jen Taylor, the voice of Cortana (yes, that Cortana!) has three “character” voices that she employs with varying levels of grating volume and inflection. Several characters have the same helium-pitched manic vocal fry and while the sound itself is bad enough, being unable to disentangle who is speaking is even worse. I may have liked the experience more if I had read as opposed to listened, but I still would not have liked this book. I also would not have finished. If I hadn’t been able to listen while commuting and doing chores, then I would not have spent any time forcing myself through to the end. While I cannot call it compelling, I wanted to see how all of the clunky reveals slammed into place for a “fairy tale” ending.