Sunday, April 16, 2017

Long Black Veil

Title:  Long Black Veil
Author:  Jennifer Finney Boylan
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0451496329 / 978-0451496324

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "This was a long time ago, before my first death, and none of us now are the people we were then."

Favorite Quote:  "There are so many things I'd like to explain. That when I was young I did not have the language to describe the workings of my own heart. That if I had it all to do over again, I would have told my truth from the beginning. That the struggle to find a connection between the people we have been and the people we become is not some crazy drama unique to people like me. It's all of us."

August, 1980. Philadelphia. A wedding. A museum. An abandoned penitentiary. Six friends - Rachel, Quentin, Tripper, Maisie, Wailer, and Casey; a younger sibling - Benny; and a teacher - Herr Krystal - go exploring the ruins of the Eastern State Penitentiary at night. Why? Who knows. It seems like a teenage prank except that this is a group of college friends the day after celebrating the wedding of two in the group. It never quite makes sense to me, and let's just say it proves to be a bad decision.

One of the group never emerges.

July 1987. The group has, for the most part, scattered, not necessarily because of the events of that night but just because that is how life goes sometimes. One of the friends makes a dramatic decision about their life, again not necessarily because of the events of that night but because it is the right choice for a life. The connection back to that fateful night is incidental at this point.

September 2015. A body is discovered at the penitentiary. Not just any body but the body of the one who disappeared all those years ago. Another member of the group is accused of murder. A friend can bear witness that the accused is not the murderer. However, that defense of a friend could cost this person their own carefully built life.

Confused yet? Me too. The book very quickly introduces many characters and the relationships between them. The same cast of characters appears in all three time periods; however, people change, and relationships shift. At the same time, the characters seem not to mature much beyond that night twenty-five years in the past. It is, at times, difficult to keep every thing straight; it is even more challenging to vest in any one character's story.

Eventually, this story is really about one member of the group. It is about coming to terms with one's own identity. It is about making the choices that are right for yourself. It is about a tough choice between the safety of self-preservation or the risk to help a friend and let the truth emerge.

The issue is that all these choices really have nothing to do with the dramatic event that begins this book. As such, the two stories compete with each other. On the one hand, this book is about an individual emotional journey of self-discovery. This is a journey about identity and about giving voice to your true identity. That by itself has the potential to be a powerful story. This is the "character" part of the book.

On the other hand, this book is about a murder mystery and about a group of friends who survive a severe trauma. As a reader, I expect that trauma to leave an impact, and the story of subsequent time periods to deal with that impact. It really does not. This is the "plot" part of this book. Unfortunately, the two do not go together, making this a challenging book for me.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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