Unfold the mystery in ‘Arcadia Falls’

We each have authors whose lives we follow. For me, one of these authors has been Carol Goodman. Since her chilling debut novel “The Lake of Dead Languages,” I’ve devoured every novel she has put forth. They’ve carried many similarities, but Goodman never fails to entertain with her unusual mix of academics, history, psychology and crime.

“Arcadia Falls,” Goodman’s seventh novel, features many themes present in her earlier works: an intellectual heroine, emotional turmoil and a historical enigma nestled within a murder mystery.

In “Arcadia Falls,” that heroine is Meg Rosenthal, a recently widowed English teacher at a small art school. On the first day of the school year, one of Meg’s students dies suddenly in a way eerily reminiscent of the death of one of the school’s founders 60 years previously.

As students and staff try to come to terms with this tragic loss, Meg finds herself drawn in by the odd behavior of the dean, Ivy St. Clare, and the cloud of confusion that surrounds the lives of the school’s founders, Vera Beecher and Lily Eberhart. The danger that was present at the school’s founding all those years ago has resurged, and figuring out what truly happened is the only way Meg can ensure the safety of her students — including her own daughter, Sally.

Well-planned, heart-tugging and creepy, “Arcadia Falls” is a good read. It manages to engage without being overdramatic and to motivate its characters without becoming too sentimental. The plot twists, though not entirely surprising or unforeseeable to a thoughtful reader, are intriguing enough to keep readers turning pages and invested in this multigenerational drama.

This book is not without its faults. It relies heavily on diversions from the lives of its main characters, sometimes without any clear eye to furthering the plot. Like many of Goodman’s novels, it tends to get bogged down in the past and does not always translate easily into the present timeline.

For perhaps this reason, its cultural references (iPods, X-Men, J.K. Rowling) feel stilted and out of place; this is a novel that works best when it diverges entirely from the real world. It resolves perhaps too neatly, with a number of outstanding coincidences I will not spoil here. (Most of them occur near the end.)

Still, despite its imperfections, this is a book I’d recommend to any devoted reader. Goodman writes for the “in” crowd of readers: those who like to read about readers. Meg Rosenthal is a reader, and the book only works if one can form a connection to her. In Meg, Goodman creates a warm, inquisitive, vulnerable and introspective character, one to whom it is easy to relate.

For all its academic focus, “Arcadia Falls” is not a particularly challenging read. It’s a soft and gooey kind of book, perfect for slacking off. I would encourage readers to curl up with this literary murder mystery on a cold day.

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