The Drowning Tree

The Drowning Tree

by Carol Goodman
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The Drowning Tree by Carol Goodman

Artfully imagined, intricately detailed, eerily poignant: these are the outstanding features of Carol Goodman’s literary thrillers. She is part novelist, part craftsman—and The Drowning Tree is her newest masterpiece.

Juno McKay intended to avoid the nearby campus of her alma mater during her fifteenth reunion weekend, but she just can’t turn down the chance to see her longtime friend, Christine Webb, speak at the Penrose College library. Though Juno cringes at the inevitable talk of the pregnancy that kept her from graduating, and of her husband, Neil Buchwald, who ended up in a mental hospital only two years after their wedding, Juno endures the gossip for her friend’s sake. Christine’s lecture sends shockwaves through the rapt crowd when she reveals little-known details about the lives of two sisters, Eugenie and Clare—members of the powerful and influential family whose name the college bears. Christine’s revelation throws shadows of betrayal, lust, and insanity onto the family’s distinguished facade.

But after the lecture, Christine seems distant, uneasy, and sad. The next day, she disappears. Juno immediately suspects a connection to her friend’s shocking speech. Although painfully reminded of her own experience with Neil’s mental illness, Juno nevertheless peels away the layers of secrets and madness that surround the Penrose dynasty. She fears that Christine discovered something damning about them, perhaps even something worth killing for. And Juno is determined to find it—for herself, for her friend, and for her long-lost husband.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781587247149
Publisher: Cengage Gale
Publication date: 09/20/2004
Edition description: Large Print
Pages: 549
Product dimensions: 6.42(w) x 9.34(h) x 0.44(d)

About the Author

Carol Goodman is the author of The Seduction of Water and The Lake of Dead Languages. Her work has appeared in such journals as The Greensboro Review, Literal Latté, The Midwest Quarterly, and Other Voices. After graduating from Vassar College, where she majored in Latin, she taught Latin for several years in Austin, Texas. She then received an M.F.A. in fiction from the New School University. Goodman currently teaches writing in New York City. She lives on Long Island.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt



I almost didn't go. I wouldn't have gone if she hadn't especially asked me to come. The force of her preference was as irresistible now as it had been nearly twenty years ago when of all the girls at Penrose College she chose me to be her best friend. So even though I'd made a vow to avoid the campus during reunion--and had managed to do so, so far--I find myself on Sunday afternoon rushing through the lengthening shadows toward the library, just as I had on so many Sunday evenings during college, making a last dash to catch up on everything I'd avoided doing all weekend.

Usually it was Christine herself who had lured me away from my work in the first place, who had unearthed me from whatever hole I'd buried myself in. "The Middle Ages can wait," she'd say, "but the Sargent exhibit at the Whitney is ending this weekend." She was always reading about some art exhibit that was just about to close. Carried along by her enthusiasm, I'd follow her to the train station, trying to keep up with her fast stride, in the wake of her long blond hair that streamed out behind her like the wings of a dove quivering on a current of air.

As I open the heavy library door I almost catch a glimpse of that hair, shining in a swath of sun behind me, but of course it's an illusion. Christine is inside, standing at the podium, miraculously transformed into this older, more constrained woman--a lecturer--her long golden hair tamed into a sleek coil.

"This is where you'd find me," Christine is saying to the audience as I slide into a folding chair in the back of the crowded hall--even the second-story galleries are packed with students sitting on the floor between the stacks--"after dinner Sunday nights, when the work I'd happily neglected all weekend finally caught up with me."

Rueful sighs stir the group seated beneath the stained-glass window. Clearly, I'm not the only one who'd been reminded, walking toward the library through the late afternoon sunshine, of those last minute penitential pilgrimages. And this is where I would find her, already at work on some paper due the next day, somehow arrived before me even though when we'd finally gotten back to the dorm from the city she'd claimed she was going to her room to sleep. While the escapades she'd led me on left me tired and bleary-eyed, they somehow left Christine refreshed and inspired. She had managed to write through the night and the paper she'd turn in on Monday morning would be the one the professors would hold up as the most original, the most brilliant.

"When I approached the table here below the window I always imagined that the Lady looked down at me askance," Christine continues, "'Oh, so you've finally seen fit to join us,' I imagined her saying. I believe I endowed her with the voice of Miss Colclough, my sophomore Chaucer professor." Christine pauses for another ripple of knowing laughter. Miss Coldclaw--as we called her--was legendary for her withering comments and draconian teaching methods. "In fact, over the years, as I studied below her I endowed the Lady in the Window with many roles--muse, companion, judge. But of course these were my own projections. What we've come to consider today is who she really is, what she has to tell us--the class of 1987--about ourselves, and why it's so important that we save her from decay."

Christine turns slightly and tilts her head up, meeting the gaze of the figure in the glass as if she had been passing on the street and recognized a friend at a second-story window. Throughout the lecture she turns like this to address the Lady as if they were contemporaries--and truly, even though Christine is dressed in a spare, sleeveless black shift (Prada, I think) and the Lady is robed in a medieval gown of embroidered damask (ruby glass acid-etched with a millefleur pattern and layered with white drapery glass), there is a kinship between the two women. There's something in the curve of their spines--Christine's when she leans back to look up at the window, the Lady as she arches her back away from her loom to look up from her labors--that echoes each other. They've got the same yellow hair. The Lady's by virtue of a medieval metallurgical process called silver stain, Christine's thanks to a colorist on the Upper East Side. The Lady's abundant Pre-Raphaelite locks, though, are loose, while Christine's long blond hair is twisted in a knot so heavy that when she bows her head back down to her notes her slender neck seems to pull against the strain. I realize, from that strain and from how thin she's gotten, what a toll this lecture has taken on her and instantly forgive her for not making time to see me these last six or seven months--the longest we've gone without seeing each other since college.

"No doubt we all heard the same story on the campus tour. The window was designed by Augustus Penrose, founder of the Rose Glass Works and Penrose College, in 1922 for the twentieth anniversary of the college's founding and it depicts Augustus's beloved wife, Eugenie. As we all know, Penrose College grew out of The Woman's Craft League which Eugenie had created for the wives and daughters of the men who worked in her husband's factory."

A college born from a glorified sewing circle, is how Christine put it once, a bit too loudly, at a freshman tea. But of course she doesn't say that to this assembly of women in their tailored linen skirts and pastel silk blouses, their Coach bags and sensible Ferragamo shoes. Penrose College may have originated from a socialist dream of aiding women from the underclasses, but it soon became a bastion of East Coast wealth and privilege.

"But before we accept that the Lady in the Window is merely a celebration of the medieval craftswoman," Christine continues, "let's review the social and artistic background of Augustus Penrose. His family owned a glass works in England, Penrose & Sons, in Kelmscott, a small village on the Thames River near Oxford, which supplied medieval quality glass for stained-glass designers, including William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite artist who also happened to live in Kelmscott. Young Augustus was particularly influenced by the opinions of William Morris, who believed that integrity ought to be restored to the decorative arts. When Simon Barovier, a wealthy factory owner from the north, purchased Penrose & Sons, he encouraged young Augustus in his artistic pursuits--and so did Barovier's daughter, Eugenie, who fell in love with Augustus. As you know, the two married, and were sent by old Simon over to this country in the 1890s to found an American branch of the glass works. Augustus and Eugenie wanted to do more, though, than run a glass factory. Influenced by Morris's ideas, they were soon in the vanguard of the Arts & Crafts Movement..."

Now that Christine has moved onto the firmer ground of her expertise in art history I let out a breath I hadn't known I was holding. I realize how nervous I am for her--how much I want this lecture to be a success for her--a comeback.

Back in college, Christine had a sort of glow about her--a radiant energy that drew people to her. We all believed she would go on to great things--even when she eschewed a PhD in favor of a job at a New York gallery and freelance writing on the arts. We thought then that she'd write a brilliant book or at least marry one of the famous artists she was often seen with at gallery openings. By the tenth reunion, when none of these things had happened and she got so drunk that she passed out during the Farewell Brunch, that glow of promise began to fade. Her name disappeared from the class notes; when I ran into people from the college that had known her they would ask after her with a solicitous edge of concern in their voices as if expecting to hear the worst. Sometimes, I suspected, hoping to hear the worst.

Many were surprised, then, when the programs for the fifteenth reunion arrived with the announcement that Christine would be delivering the lecture on the Lady window which the class of 1987 had elected to restore as their class gift. I wasn't, though, because I'd seen Christine through rehab four years ago and urged her to apply for a Penrose Grant, which supported alumnae who wanted to switch careers ten to twenty years out of college (the "second-chance" grant we often called it, a perfect prize for Christine who always managed to pull her act together at the last minute and shine brilliantly) so that she could go back to graduate school. I even suggested she make the window the subject of her thesis and when McKay Glass won the bid to do the restoration of the window--the first really big conservation project we've gotten since I convinced my father to expand into stained-glass restoration--I suggested to the college that Christine deliver this lecture. So you couldn't really blame me for being nervous for her.

While Christine's lecturing on the Pre-Raphaelites and Arts & Crafts Movement (material I've heard before), I let my mind wander and my gaze shift to the window itself--brilliant now in the late afternoon sun. The upper half is dominated by a large rounded window--a window within a window--which frames a green pool carpeted with water lilies and shaded by a weeping beech. The view of mountains in the distance is the same as the view we would see if the window were clear--the deeply wooded hills of the Hudson Highlands on the western bank--still forested because Augustus Penrose bought up all the land on that side of the river for his mansion, Astolat. When Astolat burned down in the 1930s he and Eugenie moved back to Forest Hall, their house on this side of the river. All that's left of Astolat are the water gardens that Penrose designed--the centerpiece of which was a lily pool similar to the one depicted in the window.

Although the window is executed in opalescent glass and uses techniques made popular by Tiffany and LaFarge in the 1880s, the Lady herself could well be from a medieval window. Of course, as Christine is explaining now, the Pre-Raphaelites were in love with the Middle Ages--and in love with beautiful women with long flowing hair and expressions of abandon. This one has just looked up from her work. As she arches her back you can feel the strain of the long hours she has spent bending over her loom. A flush of color--skillfully produced by sanguine, a hematite-based paint used since the sixteenth century to enhance flesh tones--rises from her low-cut bodice up her long neck to the plane of her high cheekbones. It makes you wonder what she's been dreaming of over her loom.

"What I always wondered," Christine is saying now, "is why she is looking away from the window and why she has such a rapturous expression on her face. Her expression suggests some kind of revelation. Who is this weaver supposed to be? Remember that Augustus rarely painted his beloved Eugenie just as Eugenie. As the Pre-Raphaelite painters he admired had before him, Augustus often chose to depict his model in the guise of a figure from literature."

Christine presses a button on the speaker's dais and a slide screen unrolls on the wall to the right of the window and fills with an image of a young girl bending over a lily pool, her cascading hair turning into heavy branches that trail into the water, a sheath of bark just beginning to creep up her slim legs. "In fact, the only other work without a known mythological source is this one, The Drowning Tree, which seems to echo the tales of transformation Penrose was so fond of. He painted Eugenie as Daphne turning into a laurel as she flees from Apollo--" The Drowning Tree fades and is replaced with the more familiar image of the running girl sprouting leaves from her fingertips, "--and as the nymph Salmacis merging in her sacred pool with Hermaphroditus, and Halcyone turning into a kingfisher with her drowned husband..."

Christine clicks through one picture after another, naming each mythological or literary figure as the image appears and fades. She goes so quickly that the faces begin to blur together until we are left with the impression of one face--one woman appearing in many guises. Which is, of course, the impression Christine has been trying to create. They are all Eugenie--whether frightened as Daphne, lusting like Salmacis, or in the throes of shape-shifting like Halcyone. When the screen goes dark an image of that face--radiant, haloed by bright red gold hair--seems to burn on the blank screen for just an instant, glowing like the face in the stained glass-window.

"WHO, THEN, IS SHE--OUR LADY IN THE WINDOW? WHY, AFTER ALL THESE TALES OF transformation, would Augustus chose to depict Eugenie as some anonymous weaver in his last known portrait of her? To answer that question I ask you to notice the 'window' at her back. Many people have assumed that the landscape in the window depicts a view of the Hudson Highlands where Penrose built his grand estate, Astolat. But if you look carefully at the arrangement of ridges in the landscape,"--the flickering red arrow of Christine's laser pointer skims over the ridgelines in the window--"and compare them to the arrangement of hills in the actual landscape"--a photograph of the view across the river appears on the slide screen--"you will notice that the ridges are actually reversed. This is not a window--it's a mirror reflecting a window.

"And in what medieval story is a beautiful young maiden condemned to look at life only in its reflection? Why 'The Lady of Shalott' of course, Tennyson's version of an Arthurian legend. You probably remember it from Miss Ramsey's Nineteenth-century Lit class."

What I remember from Miss Ramsey's class was having to memorize Tennyson's endless ode to friendship, "In Memoriam." But as Christine outlines the story, "The Lady of Shalott" comes back to me: the enchanted maiden in her island tower, prohibited from looking directly at the world, weaving what she sees reflected in a mirror set opposite the window....

I look at the river landscape in the window and then at the scene unfolding in the Lady's loom. If this were the Lady of Shalott, they would be identical, but they are not. In fact the loom is blank. She seems to be weaving plain, unfigured cloth.

Still Christine makes a good argument for identifying the Lady in the Window with the heroine of Tennyson's poem. The name Augustus Penrose gave his mansion--Astolat--is an alternate name for Shalott. The pose of our Lady is similar to that of several Pre-Raphaelite Ladies of Shalott, as Christine demonstrates through a series of slides. She even has an explanation for why the scenes in the window and on the loom don't match. According to Eugenia Penrose's design notebook, the original painted panes for those sections were cracked during firing and had to be replaced by plain colored glass in order for the window to be ready in time for the library's dedication.

From the Hardcover edition.

Reading Group Guide

1. Why do you think Goodman chose glass as the medium for Juno’s restoration work and much of the artwork discussed in the novel—the Lady window in particular? How is the metaphor of glass carried through the novel?

2. Juno attributes some of Neil’s artistic brilliance to his mental illness. Do you think that the age-old association between madness and creativity is valid? Why would such a connection exist?

3. When Juno encounters Christine’s lifeless body in the Wicomico, she initially mistakes it for her own reflection. To what extent is Juno’s fascination with Christine a fascination with herself? What are the similarities and differences between the two women?

4. Christine tells Juno that what she fears most is going insane. What part did this fear play in her eventual downfall? Do you think fear alone is enough to drive a healthy person insane?

5. It is said many times that Bea is remarkably mature for her age. Do you think that dealing with difficult circumstances in childhood breeds early maturity? Can you think of specific incidents or situations in your life that forced you to grow up?

6. Juno speculates that despite her criticism and disapproval of Christine, Ruth Webb still loved her daughter. Mothers and daughters have notoriously complex relationships, but do you think that it’s possible for a mother not to love her daughter in some way?

7. While in the Cloisters museum during college, Christine asks Juno why she thinks Dante has to go all the way into hell to find his way again? Why do you think this question so fascinates Christine?

8. So many characters in The Drowning Tree are preoccupied with their search for the truth. Do you think it’s always best to know the truth in every situation? Can you think of instances from your own life when you would have preferred to be left in ignorance?

9. When considering the charmed though restrictive childhood of Gavin Penrose, Juno asks herself, “How can you ever really tell if people are happy?” Are there definitive marks of a “happy” person? Are there any characters in The Drowning Tree whom you would classify as happy people?

10. Juno writes that, in the early days of her relationship with Neil, Christine’s presence steadied the young couple like the third leg of a tripod. Do you think Christine was a necessary presence in Juno and Neil’s relationship? What did she do to strengthen their bond, and what did she do to cripple it?

11. Do you think that Juno’s comparison of her love triangle with Neil and Christine to the relationship between Augustus Penrose and the Barovier sisters is an apt one? What makes the two trios different, and what parallels match up?

12. Almost every family has its own version of the boogeyman who comes to get naughty children. The constant threat in the Webb household was that if you didn’t behave yourself you’d “end up uphill.” What do you think the threats parents use with their children reveal about the parent? Was there a boogeyman in your household?

13. Where, if anywhere, do you think the moral responsibility lies for the death of the boy in Kyle’s Colorado kayaking accident? Have you ever felt responsible for something that wasn’t necessarily your fault?

14. The first chapter of The Drowning Tree begins with the lines “I was late for Christine’s lecture. I almost didn’t go.” In the last pages of the novel, Goodman repeats, “I was late for the lecture. I almost didn’t go.” Why do you think the novel is framed with these lines? How do actions almost not done alter the twists and turns of the plot?

15. While Beatrice is away on a kayaking trip, Juno certainly has a tumultuous few weeks. If you were in Juno’s shoes, how much of the story would you reveal to your teenage daughter?

16. Do you think that there is “love which absolves no one beloved from loving”? Or do you agree with Juno and Falco’s interpretation that once someone is loved they are bound to love another, though not necessarily the person who first admired them?

17. Why do you think Augustus Penrose and Neil Buchwald both preferred to paint their beloveds as characters from mythology, rather than simply paint them as themselves? Would you find such a portrayal of yourself flattering or disempowering?

18. Juno is amazed that Gavin’s assistant, Faye, has a prophylactic mastectomy. It seems to her like a dramatic measure to take for prevention alone. What do you think? Is Faye’s decision admirable, or do you think it was an overreaction on her part?

19. Why did Christine so desperately want to believe that her family was somehow related to the Penroses? Have you ever struggled, as Christine did, to belong to a world so vastly different from your own?

20. Did you think Juno and Neil would eventually get back together? Would The Drowning Tree have had a happy ending, in your opinion, if Neil had survived and they did continue with a romantic relationship?

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Drowning Tree 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
TheCrowdedLeaf More than 1 year ago
I'm not joking when I say Carol Goodman could be my idol. Granted, I've only read two of her books, but she's exactly the kind of writer I hope to be some day. Her novels are full of artistic and literary themes, with beautifully dynamic settings. Who wouldn't want to write such intriguingly mysterious books? The Drowning Tree centers around Juno McKay as she's forced to confront her past during a reunion at Penrose College. When her best friend, Christine Webb, is chosen to give a speech on a famous stained glass window about to be restored by Juno's family, Juno knows she has to attend. But it turns out that Christine has done some behind-the-scenes research, and seems to have discovered a bit of history about the founders of Penrose College that the current President, Gavin Penrose, may not be so excited about. When Christine dies unexpectedly, Juno is left with nothing but Christine's research and a handful of suspects. When links to Juno's mentally disturbed ex-husband start to surface, she no longer knows who she can trust. Goodman's writing is smooth and Juno's voice is incredibly informative and consistant. But more than the characters themselves, I love the environments Goodman creates. The Drowning Tree has a burned out skeleton of a mansion called Astolat, a prestigious all-girls college with a shadowy history, and a haunting statue garden drowned under a river. I can't imagine where she comes up with them, but her scenes are intensely dark and beautiful. Throughout the novel are themes of art and lust, as well as greco-roman mythology. The founders of the college were artists and their paintings of nymphs and mythological scenes are described so vividly and hauntingly, I can picture them if I shut my eyes. As with Arcadia Falls (her most recent book), Goodman leaves you guessing until the end. You think you've solved the mystery and know who the killer is, but you're wrong. Could it be Juno's possible new love interest, the kayak instructor Kyle? Could it be the founding family's grandson, current Penrose President, Gavin Penrose? Could her very own ex-husband Neil have done it? Fresh from his years in the local mental institution? Or did Christine succumb to her fear of depression and kill herself? The end happens quick, so fast you might miss it if you aren't looking. Goodman is two-for-two in my book. I strongly recommend her novels. 5 stars (I purchased this book)
debbook More than 1 year ago
Juno McKay is a single mother, divorced after her mentally ill husband tried to drown himself, along with her and their child fourteen years earlier. Now she has a small company that restores stained glass windows in the Hudson River Valley. Penrose College, where she went to school, has commissioned her to restore the revered stained glass window, The Lady in the Window, based on Tennyson's poem, The Lady of Shalott. Christine Webb is Juno's best friend and has been selected to give a lecture on the window before it is removed for restoration. After the lecture, Juno sees Christine off at the train station but a few days later her body is found in the Hudson River, near the college and estate of it's deceased founder, Augustus Penrose. Juno discovers that while researching The Lady window, Christine uncovered some secrets about the founder, his wife, and her sister. And Juno discovers that Christine was also in contact with Juno's ex-husband Neil who has spent the last several years at Briarwood, the mental institution upriver. Juno still dreams about Neil and has never loved anyone since him. But he is a suspect in Christine's death as is Augustus' grandson and current Penrose College President, Gavin Penrose. My review: This is the fifth book by Carol Goodman that I have read but I think it is my favorite. It was her third one written after The Lake of Dead Languages and The Seduction of Water. Like those, The Drowning Tree is set in a small town in upstate New York along the Hudson River, which is a locale that I just love. The author describes fictional art work based on Ovid mythology and Pre-Ralphaelite paintings. The Drowning Tree is the name of one such work of art. Plus, the Tiffany references with regards to the stained glass made this a very artistic mystery. I also love the water references. Goodman is so descriptive and poetic but not overly so. Plus she can write a good mystery. Her characters are well-rounded and interesting. Juno is raising an amazing daughter Bea, has two adopted greyhounds, named Paulo and Francesca, taken from Dante. She is a townie in a college town who is a strong, though low-key character. I think Goodman's work is under-rated. Her first three books are really very good. I also read The Night Villa which I didn't care for that much though it was set in the beautiful Mediterranean. The Ghost Orchid was just okay and I haven't read The Sonnet Lover yet. I know authors like to branch out, but I really prefer her early works and hope she returns to those types of settings. But I strongly recommend this novel! my review 5/5
harstan More than 1 year ago
Penrose College alumni art historian Christine Webb explains the depths and links that make up a splendid stained-glass window at her alma mater to her audience of feminists. The masterpiece contains a portrait of the wife of glassmaker and school founder Augustus Penrose. Christine explains that the glass art pays homage to romantic poets, pre-Raphaelite paintings, and Greek mythology, etc as a symbolic look at women through the ages. Suddenly, a close friend in the audience Juno McKay shockingly observes a bloody red light that legend insists predicts death engulfing Christine............................. . Not long afterward Christine disappears drowns in a kayak incident. Juno refuses to accept suicide induced by a drug overdose so she begins to investigate starting with the college¿s founding father. She learns that Augustus married Eugenie, but loved her younger sister mentally fragile Clare, who later suffered a mental breakdown and tried to commit suicide by drowning. Soon she traces Clare's hospitalization to an institution for the insane where she seeks to unravel the truth as to what happened to her friend and to Clare though some people wants her silent.............................. Though the tale takes time to accelerate (Christine¿s lecture reminds me of some classes I slept through at Lehman College ¿ though this makes the college atmosphere feel authentic), once Juno begins her intelligent amateur sleuthing, DROWNING TREE never looks back until the finish. Juno is a terrific protagonist starring in this academic mystery as she connects the dots past and present. Fans of cerebral mysteries will enjoy Carol Goodman¿s tale and seek other works such as THE SEDUCTION OF WATER.................................. Harriet Klausner
TheMysteriousOne More than 1 year ago
Loved every minute of it! Really one of her best novels.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I like
Lny11 More than 1 year ago
It took me a while to finish this book because it didn't hold my attention.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I have heard Carol Goodman's other books are better. This one was overall a good read, but some parts got a little too descriptive and kind lost me.