Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

April 7, 2010 at 6:15 pm (ARC, fiction, mixed bag, novels)

When her husband’s sudden death reveals an avalanche of hidden debt, Meg Rosenthal has no choice but to sell off everything she owns . With her teenage daughter Sally in tow, Meg moves to the small town of Arcadia Falls after securing a teaching job at a prestigious arts school, hoping a change of scenery will help heal the growing rift between them. But when one of the students goes missing, Meg finds herself at the center of a mystery with roots that stretch back to the very founding of the school.

Goodman’s greatest success is her ability to maintain a break neck pace throughout Arcadia Falls. Though the book starts out slow with Goodman taking the first eighty pages to introduce her cast of characters, as soon as Meg begins uncovering the secrets of the school’s founders the story speeds up, and Goodman doesn’t tap the brake until the final page. Each new piece of information follows right on the heels of the previous one, and every time I thought I had the ending figured out, Goodman threw in a new twist that always killed my latest theory.

But the pace itself – not the characters, the storyline, or Goodman’s use of language – was the only thing that really kept me plowing through the novel. Had Goodman not put the pedal to the floor when she did, I’m not sure Arcadia Falls would have kept my attention.

Why? Well, for one thing, I didn’t like the main character. Like so many of the first person narrators I’ve discussed on this blog, Meg has no personality. She is bland. She’s polite, inquisitive, imaginative, and she loves her daughter, but that’s all we really know about her. Sure, she tells us about some of the major events in her life  – how she dropped out of art school to have Sally, how she was a stay at home mom until the day her husband died – but Meg never tells us how she feels about any of those events or how they affected her on a personal level. Occasionally she’ll ruminate on her past, but she doesn’t dig particularly deep when doing so.

Goodman’s writing is neither good nor bad. It’s competent. Her words don’t light up the page, but they get the job done. They’re functional.

Arcadia Falls is full of recurring themes and motifs. One is the conflict between raising a child and cultivating an artistic life. Another is dependence vs. independence. But, again, none of these themes are explored in-depth. Different themes figure prominently at different points in the narrative, but are often dropped before Goodman can really examine what they mean to the story, and that makes the book feel incomplete.

The ending was a real problem for me. Goodman gives Meg and Sally a laughably unrealistic, fairytale ending that I probably wouldn’t have had a problem with if, A) the fairytale motif, so prominent in the first half of the book and practically non-existent in the second half, had figured more prominently throughout the story, and B) if Meg and Sally had actually earned their happy ending. As is, neither of them do much but fall victim to circumstance and aren’t really transformed by the experience.

Goodman may know how to weave an intriguing and complicated yarn, but overall, Arcadia Falls is an average book. It’s not deep and doesn’t require a lot of thought on the reader’s part. It ‘s a decent way to pass the time, but it’s not a story that will stick with you.

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