A long-lost relative, a cache of old documents, a haunting past: these plot-thickeners combined effectively in Kim Edwards's The Memory Keeper's Daughter, a 2006 best-seller that dramatized the damaging effects of a shameful secret on a Lexington, Kentucky family from 1964 through the 1980s. Edwards's second novel, The Lake of Dreams, aims for a similar goal over a longer time span, reaching back many generations to expose hidden connections between a contemporary young woman and her female ancestor who had been erased, until now, from the family record.
Set in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where Edwards grew up, the new novel makes a strong case for the area's abundant charms, both natural and historical. Edwards grounds her characters in a fictional town about an hour south of Rochester called The Lake of Dreams, named by the Iroquois who were its first inhabitants. Lakes, and water in general, are a key motif here: Lucy Jarrett, the 29-year-old narrator, is a hydrologist living in Japan who makes a trip back to her waterfront hometown and notes big changes afoot among the summer cottages and picturesque shorelines.
The local military depot is closing, setting off a land-grab dispute between developers and environmentalists hoping to preserve the wetlands' delicate ecosystem. The town's lake is also a source of deep emotion for Lucy, who fished and swam in it throughout her childhood and whose beloved father died there in an accidental drowning just before she left for college. "All my nightmares were at the bottom of this lake," she admits; "everything I'd ever lost was there." Having lived and worked abroad after college, first in Indonesia, then in Japan, Lucy uses this trip home to revisit her unhealed grief and to decide where she fits in her family's lakeside life now that a decade has elapsed since her father's funeral, when "the day-to-day ...close[d] over his absence as seamlessly as water over a rock."
While Lucy solves many mysteries about her father during this trip, she also stumbles across another tantalizing enigma. Hidden under a window seat in the rooftop cupola of her once-grand childhood home, she finds a stack of old papers: mostly pamphlets relating to women's suffrage activities, but also a letter from 1925 to Lucy's great-grandfather Joseph -- who had bought this house around this time and started the family hardware business that thrives to this day--signed cryptically by "R."
Lucy continues to investigate as the puzzle pieces fall neatly -- in fact, too neatly -- into place. From local library and church archives, she discovers that "R" was her great-grandfather Joseph's sister, Rose, who was sent away from the family for some sort of scandal, leaving her baby daughter to be raised by Joseph and his wife. Further excursions to Rochester and Seneca Falls suggest that this punishment may have had to do with Rose's activities in the women's suffrage movement or with her connection to a well-known stained-glass artist, whose windows depicting biblical women happen to hang in an abandoned chapel on the nearby disputed land where the military depot is closing.
With not always believable efficiency, every question here gets its answer in the next piece of evidence Lucy happens to find. What happened to Rose's daughter? What was Rose's relationship to the glass artist -- was she his lover, his model, perhaps his colleague? What was the scandalous behavior that banished her from The Lake of Dreams? Could the figures of biblical female heroes in the stained-glass windows of the chapel provide some clues?
The novel's tidiness extends beyond these questions to Lucy's contemporary dilemmas. Her scheming uncle Art, who had feuded with her father in the years before his drowning, hopes to claim the family house and land as part of a waterfront development project. Meanwhile, Lucy's high-school boyfriend, now a successful glass-blower who's consulting about the restoration of the chapel's stained-glass windows, is advocating for the town's environmentalists on behalf of the Seneca nation branch of the Iroquois, of which his mother is an outspoken member. "Everything was connected in a way I had not understood before," says Lucy, and this is true to a fault. Past and present tie seamlessly together, while selective images of water, decorative glass, celestial bodies, gardens, keys and locks, and Jungian dreams repeat and repeat, like a giant craft fair with identical booths.
Edwards is a talented writer whose spiritual-political-feminist story-spinning needs more embellishment, not less, to distract readers from the prosaic workings of its machinery. Sue Monk Kidd and Jodi Picoult have proved that these kinds of novels work best with lots of mess and mayhem, with overstuffed plots and unruly adornments. To Edwards and her next enterprise I say pile it on, sister, bring more wild hair and flowing purple garments and dream catchers, more witch-and-goddess imagery and even more red herrings, and readers will stay longer at the fair.