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Let the Islands Pull You In

I read two books one after the other that pulled me towards islands and home – The Land of Mango Sunsets and The Lace Reader. On the surface, they are very, very different – one is about a Manhattan Society woman and the other is about the history of lace and the women who create and “read” it (like fortune telling). However, both books are about women coming home to themselves, rediscovering family, and succumbing to the lure of the island. They are both beautiful stories that will touch your heart. Take a day with a lounge chair and some boat drinks, and read them both – you won’t be able to put either one down.

The Land of Mango Sunsets: A Novel is a beautiful book by Dorothea Benton Frank. Miriam is a Manhattan society woman who has fallen out of favor since her ex-husband left her to marry his mistress and raise their children. At first, Miriam is most concerned about proper behavior and the importance of moving up within the society of wealthy volunteer women. She is somewhat estranged from her children & grandchildren, and has her parrot Harry and her gay third floor tenant Kevin for friends. However, she is so caught up in what she believes she should be doing that she doesn’t see her loneliness.

Things begin to change for Miriam after renting her second floor to a new tenant and taking a trip a visit to her childhood home – an island off the coast of South Carolina. Her mother is there focusing on organic foods, gardening, and living green. Miriam is put off by this “hippie living”, especially when her mother and a friend share a joint during a walk on the beach. After she returns to Manhattan, she begins her metamorphosis – from “prissy” Miriam to a more relaxed “Mellie”. As these changes progress internally, Mellie opens herself up to her family, working past the pain from the divorce years ago.

This story pulls you into Miriam/Mellie’s life, and holds on to you until you are finished reading. If you have been in pain or closed off from the world in any way, her story will inspire you. I was lucky enough recently to see a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. Just as the butterfly takes time to dry its wings and strengthen them, the characters in The Land of Mango Sunsets emerge from their cocoons, and huddle together before spreading their wings. It’s a beautiful story that I doubt you’ll be able to put down!

The Lace Reader is a novel by Brunonia Barry. Towner Whitney is much younger woman than Miriam, but she is also called back to her childhood home, this time by the disappearance of her great-aunt and mother figure, Eva. The novel starts with a passage from “The Lace Reader’s Guide” – a guide to the reading of fortunes in lace. The quotes continue throughout the book, along with the narrator’s memories of her Aunt reading lace, and reading lace herself. The Lace Reader website does a great job of explaining the world in which Barry has set the story – Salem, MA and the surrounding towns in the 1990s with some poetic license thrown in (the island home, Yellow Dog Island, is not a real island off of Salem, though the Miseries, Children’s Island, and so many other landmarks are).

I’ve got to believe that Barry lives or lived in the area. There is one scene where Towner’s brother Beezer and his friends showing his fiancĂ©e Anya the statue of Salem founding father Roger Conant near the Salem Common. At a certain angle, it looks like he is, um, pleasuring himself. Driving past that statue for years as a teenager myself, I thought my friends and I were the first ones to notice it! There are so many little truisms in the story about the area, it calls to me as someone who has grown up on the North Shore, and then moved back.

Barry has created a world within The Lace Reader that is a rollercoaster of emotions and self-discovery. Towner returns to her hometown and home island after years hiding from them. She finds herself needing to face the demons that had her in a psychiatric hospital as a teenager, demons she has hid from for so many years. Just as Towner needs to face reality and the past, the town does as well – there are modern-day Calvinists trying to persecute the witches who have found sanctuary in today’s Salem.

As a reader, one wonders about Towner’s opening paragraph in Chapter 3:

My name is Towner Whitney. No, that’s not exactly true. My real first name is Sophya. Never believe me. I lie all the time

I am a crazy woman, … That last part is true.

At first, one discounts this – sure, she had been in a psychiatric hospital as a teenager, but that was years ago. As the story unravels, however, and Towner’s first person narrative is interspersed with Detective Rafferty’s narrative, it becomes more foggy – what is true? We see how Towner’s mother, May, has dealt with her sister’s physical abuse – she runs a sanctuary on Yellow Dog Island for abused women and children. Towner herself has had electric shock therapy to rid herself of visions, leaving large gaps in her short term and long term memories. What is true memory, and what is made up as protection?

Towner’s family is filled with “Lace Readers” – women who can see a person’s future in the lace. Her Great-Aunt Eva had done so professionally to much success, and Towner is also graced with the gift, though she refuses to use it if at all possible – she sees only destruction and death. It is really only in a town such as Salem (with psychics and witches everywhere) that refusing to use such a talent is seen as a character flaw. It is fascinating that even as Towner tries to avoid the lace, we see her world spread out for us like a piece of lace – which threads lead toward the answers the characters and the readers seek, and which ones are tricksters, leading to a dead end. The Lace Reader keeps us following the patterns until the very last words of the last page – “The End”. There is no way to put it down until you have read it all.

Please do yourselves a favor and pick up The Lace Reader and The Land of Mango Sunsets soon. Transport yourself to an island, and find the world there.

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