By Wendy Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; C02
SECRETS OF EDEN
By Chris Bohjalian
Shaye Areheart. 370 pp. $25
A pall of alienation and anger shrouds Chris Bohjalian's new novel, beginning with the opening words by Stephen Drew, a Baptist minister in Haverill, Vt. "There were some Sundays," he tells us, when "it would seem that the only people rising up in their pews to speak needed Prozac considerably more than they needed prayer." Not a terribly pastoral attitude, even before Stephen admits that sometimes he finds himself thinking, "Get a spine, you bloody ingrate! Buck up!"
The one who really needs bucking up, though, is this minister, whose parishioner Alice Hayward was strangled to death by her abusive husband, George, on the same day that Stephen baptized her. Unfolding this grim tale, Stephen seems oddly self-pitying and self-blaming, until we learn a few pages later that he had been Alice's lover as well as her minister.
Stephen doesn't impart that salient fact to Heather Laurent, the author of two best-selling books about angels, who detours from a nearby bookstore appearance to offer consolation to him and the Haywards' orphaned 15-year-old daughter, Katie. His omission is reasonable when Heather is simply a stranger drawn to the case because her own father killed her mother and then himself. It takes on more unpleasant connotations after Stephen abandons his congregation and heads for Manhattan to ring the doorbell of Heather's loft; less than 24 hours later, they're exchanging pillow talk about previous lovers, with "one name conspicuously absent." By the time he offers his weirdly distanced rationalizations for falling into bed with Heather six days after Alice's death, most readers will thoroughly dislike this cold, egotistical man.
Plenty of good novels have repellent narrators; Anita Shreve employed one to chilling effect in "All He Ever Wanted," and the self-loathing protagonist of Dostoevski's "Notes From Underground" remains the classic model. But Stephen is not that interesting, and the problem deepens when his 100-page monologue is succeeded by the equally off-putting rant of Catherine Benincasa, the deputy state's attorney who's working on the Hayward case. It's not that Catherine refers to Stephen as a "dirtball" -- we're with her there -- or that she's quickly convinced that Stephen shot George and tried to make it look like suicide, which seems plausible enough. Catherine's vengeful tone is understandable, given the violence against women she sees in her job, but her cynicism about human behavior becomes distasteful when we see it extended to victims and bystanders as well as perpetrators.
Alice, in the state's attorney's view, was just another battered woman in denial; she mustered the gumption to separate from George and get a protection order against him the previous winter, but then relapsed and took him back. Stephen isn't merely a creep who took advantage of a vulnerable parishioner; Catherine discerns in him a "serial-killer vibe" and thinks it's possible he killed both Haywards. Maybe Heather was already his lover and egged him on, she speculates, imagining him thinking, "She's so very unhappy. She'll be much better off as an angel!" There's not a shred of evidence for any of this, she admits, but Catherine is the kind of person who can find murderous intentions in a Valentine's Day card. Her narration, like Stephen's, trumpets a personal agenda that stands between us and emotional engagement with the Haywards' tragedy.
Bohjalian, a seasoned pro, lucidly handles the back-and-forth chronology as successive narrators give their different perspectives on the same events, and he skillfully plants clues -- which nightgown was Alice wearing? why was the dog outside? -- that carefully lead to a shocking final plot twist, though they cannot make it persuasive. His previous novels, such as "Midwives," "The Buffalo Soldier" and "Before You Know Kindness," have covered topics of obvious contemporary concern (adoption, oppressive political correctness) within the context of family life, and Bohjalian takes the same approach here. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but his portrait of domestic violence rarely goes deeper than a magazine article: George is an angry, controlling, alcoholic abuser; Alice an isolated, passive victim; both are generic figures rather than fully imagined characters.
Things get slightly more nuanced when Heather, the best-selling angel author, takes over as narrator in Part 3. Her mother was no cringing sufferer but an active, goading participant in a relationship whose abuse had a kinky sexual component. Heather's memories of the marriage are specific in a way that makes it more realistic, and more horrifying, than the earlier stock depiction of the Haywards' union. But Heather herself is a schematic and unconvincing character, her obsession with angels the predictable refuge of a girl traumatized by her parents' murder-suicide.
The brief closing section faultlessly captures Katie Hayward's teenage voice, and her reconstruction of Alice's last hours can't help but pack a wallop. But its impact is muffled when Katie turns back to rehash her parents' separation and reconciliation, a necessary prelude to the Big Revelation in the very last sentence. Trying to fold a serious subject into a commercially palatable format, "Secrets of Eden" is readable and fitfully insightful, but never truly illuminating.
Smith was a finalist this year for the National Book Critics Circle Excellence in Reviewing citation.