New England White by Stephen L. Carter
Knopf, 2007, ARE
Fiction; 551 pgs
Rating: (Good +)
First Sentence: Rumors chase the dead like flies, and we follow them with our prim noses.
Reason for Reading: When I discovered this title among the Curled Up With a Good Book picks, I could not resist putting in a request for a copy. I had read the author’s debut fiction novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, which I enjoyed by the time I finished it, although I admit to having my doubts along the way. I also knew this would be a book that would take me some time to work through, the author’s writing style and the complex tales he weaves playing a large part in that.
Comments: Author and Law Professor, Stephen L. Carter raised the stakes of literary thriller fiction with his best selling novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park. His latest novel, New England White continues in that tradition, raising the stakes even more.
Readers of the author's debut novel may remember mention of the Carlyle family, a prominent and wealthy African American family residing in Connecticut. The family becomes the main focus in New England White. The newly appointed president of the university and former Assistant U.S. Attorney, Lemaster Carlyle, and his wife Julia discover the body of Professor Kellen Zant on their drive home after a fundraising event one night.
Before that moment, life had already been strained for the Carlyle family. Their teenage daughter, Vanessa, had set her father’s Mercedes on fire in an apparent act of rebellion and was obsessed with a local 30 year old murder of a young woman around her age. The eldest Carlyle son seemed to be avoiding the family, staying as far away from them as possible, not even returning home for the holidays. Julia was not quite happy with her marriage, which she knew was more a marriage of comfort and security as opposed to one of passion, a stark contrast from the relationships she had had with Kellen Zant before she married Lemaster all those years before. And yet family was the most important thing in Julia’s life, and she would do anything to protect them.
Despite the death of Kellen, Julia found that his name kept coming up in conversations. When she is approached by a well known journalist and author who believes Julia is protecting something of Kellen’s and then later by an attorney with shady and powerful clientele who threatens that his client will not tolerate her lack of cooperation, Julia refuses to be drawn into whatever trouble Kellen had evidently been involved in. The body count mounts, and the secret Kellen was hiding is in high demand. Despite her efforts, when questioned by one of the investigating detectives on the case and the university’s Director of Safety, Bruce Vallely, both of whom suspect her daughter, Vanessa, may have played in Kellan’s recent activities, Julia knows she has no choice but to search out the truth herself. Kellen, while alive, had anticipated that and set out clues that only Julia could understand and follow. One way or the other, the truth would come out.
Julia is not sure who she can trust and so sets out on her own, afraid of what she might discover about her own family’s secrets and yet determined that knowing the truth is the only way to protect them and perhaps in the end, seek justice.
Stephen L. Carter weaves an intricate and detailed web that will keep the reader guessing until the very end. The author tackles racial and political issues, as well as greed and cover up. And what of justice versus striving for the greater good? Julia’s fascination with antique mirrors is more telling than a simple hobby. Mirrors symbolize truth but can also be used to create illusion. Secrets and lies permeate every corner of the novel. Each of the characters is complex and multi-layered, not one is without faults. Julia who in the beginning of the novel is annoyingly compliant and comes across as weak in the beginning of the novel finds her legs and brings to the forefront some of that moxie that she has suppressed for so long.
New England White is not a book that can be read quickly. It is one that requires thought on the reader’s part and close attention to detail or else an important piece of the puzzle may be overlooked. This is more of an intellectual thriller than an action-packed one; at times it moves rather slowly, but it is well worth the time it might take to read it. Originally published at Curled Up With a Good Book © Wendy Runyon, 2007
Favorite Parts: When the viewpoint switched temporarily to Bruce Vallely, the director of safety. Up until that point, the focus had been on Julia and the author spent a lot of time developing her character, inserting the reader into her thoughts and concerns. I could have done with a little less of that, to be honest. I was not too fond of Julia during those early chapters. It was also at this point that the book really took off for me. I had no issues with Julia’s character after that.
Bruce Vallely was among my favorite characters in the book. He had a good head on his shoulders and wanted to do what was right even when he felt forced to make the wrong choices.
Miss Terry was another of my favorites. I liked her style and attitude. I would not have minded seeing more of her in the novel, although I think that would have only detracted from the story since hers was only a minor role.
My favorite scene in the book is not my favorite because I agree with the behavior of the white people in the neighborhood (obviously I don’t), but because it was turning point for Julia in the novel. She is seeking aid in an unfamiliar neighborhood and no one will open the door for her. Although Julia had no doubt experienced prejudice in her life, she had lived a privileged life and was among the elite. Her experience of the hardships and challenges that many others have had to face were not her own. She heard about it and read about it, but it was still something that was distant from her own life. Not a part of her world.
Another of my favorite parts was when Julia walks in on her daughter dancing. She is listening to funeral dirge music. It is a defining moment for both mother and daughter, both for themselves as individuals and as mother and daughter.