Friday, February 19, 2010

Book Review: Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

Another week, another audio book. This week I listened to Chris Bohjalian's "Secrets of Eden: A Novel".

As a resident of Vermont I've grown up reading Chris Bohjalian's column in the Burlington Free Press. I was vaguely aware that he had crossed into fiction and novels, but didn't take the time to listen or read to his work until I stumbled upon a segment on the today show rating "Secrets of Eden" as a top pick. By chance, my February audible credits had been freshly delivered that very day so I took a chance and downloaded Secrets of Eden.

The premise of the story is a murder-suicide in small town rural Vermont. Alice is a battered woman who lives in fear and in the shadow of her controlling husband. There's an air of keeping up appearances as a well-respected business owner. It becomes clear that Alice hid her abuse well. This novel is written in four parts - each part telling the story from the point of view of a different character.

In part one we meet reverend Stephen Drew - a seemingly stereotypical country pastor - well intentioned - but suffering a crisis of faith. Stephen baptizes Alice Hayward on the morning of her death - as though she had sensed her impending death. Stephen is rocked by Alice's death, ultimately leaving his flock.

Part two is from the perspective of author Heather Laurent, a popular author specializing in the actions and presence of angels. It turns out Heather's mother was killed by her father as well - leaving Heather an orphan. For this reason Heather intervenes to help both Stephen and the Hayward's daughter Katie.

Part three is narrated by a Vermont State Attorney - a young and ambitious mother of two - who suspects the dear reverend has not been entirely honest about his role in the small community of Haverall and his relationship with the lovely Alice Hayward.

In part four we hear from Katie Hayward. The sympathetic teenage daughter of Alice Hayward - her life thrown into turmoil following the events of that July evening. She's an all-american girl - smart, pretty and likeable - it was easy to put my 15 year old self into her shoes - that whole suspension of disbelief thing :-)

From the beginning there's suspicion that perhaps the murder-suicide was not what it appeared to be - but it's not until the last 15 minutes of the story that everything comes together. In these kind of novels I often feel like the ending is revealed in the first few chapters and the remainder of the book is spent tying up the loose ends. This is not the case with "Secrets of Eden" - I was surprised by the resolution of the story - and completely satisfied.

This is not a book that will hold you prisoner from start to finish. I wasn't compelled to sit in the car after arriving at every destination to squeeze in another five minutes - but it was always a pleasure to step back into the story every time I got back into the car. If I were reading this book I'd imagine it'd be one that I picked up for a couple of hours every night until it was finished.

I highly recommend Chris Bohjalian's "Secrets of Eden: A Novel" and while I've already started my next audiobook (Simple Genius by David Baldacci), I plan to go back and read/listen to Chris Bohjalian's other works as well - probably starting with "Skeletons of the Feast" (also narrated by Mark Bramhall).

The book references many cities and towns in Vermont: The morgue at Fletcher Allen Hospital across the street from the gothic buildings on the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, the college town of Bennington, Rutland, Barre's rock of ages. If you live in Vermont you know that the town Barre is pronounced "Berry" - one narrator consistently called the town "Barr". I found this to be a pretty big oversight in a work by a Vermont author. I would have expected someone from Mr. Bohjalian's team to actually listen to the audio before it was released. Perhaps a small oversight by most listener's standards but I found the error distracting.

Released on February 2nd, 2010 Secrets of Eden was written by Chris Bohjalian and produced for audio by Random House Audio. Running time 11 hours and 17 minutes and was narrated by Mark Bramhall, Susan Denaker, Rebecca Lowman and Kathe Mazur.

Secrets of Eden: A Novel is available from audible.com

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