The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman
Ballantine Books, 336 pages
Source: Pleasanton Library
I read a favorable review of this book on the Haunted Travels website and decided to check it out. After I was thirty pages in, I realized I had read this novel before. Here’s the interesting part: I enjoyed it more the second time. I think it’s because I wasn’t trying to figure out what would happen, and I could just relax and enjoy the flow.
The protagonist Ellis Brooks has been invited to the historic Bosco estate, now an artist’s retreat, to finish a novel based on tragic events that transpired here more than a hundred years earlier. Ellis Brooks is writing about the original 19th century occupants, Milo and Aurora Latham, who had invited psychic Corinth Blackwell to Bosco to contact the spirits of their dead children. But Corinth unexpectedly encounters people from her past, and the séance request is not as straightforward as first appears. And then tragedy strikes again.
In an author’s sleight of hand, it turns out that the present day author Ellis sees dead people, one of whom leads her to uncover the mysteries of Bosco and Corinth. And if these plotlines are not enough, there’s Abenaki mythology braided into the mix. Confusing, huh? Rest assured, the author (the real one), leads you through the labyrinth with a sure step.
This is a book filled with lyrical language. Here’s a sample: “…she spears the death certificate to the muslin curtain, where it flutters like an impaled moth” (109). Lovely, yes? There is lush description to satisfy the most discerning landscape architects, especially those interested in fountains and statuary. The ghost orchid pictured above (isnt’ it eerily beautiful?) has its own mysterious place in the story.
As a writer, I enjoyed observing the angst-ridden fictional author write portions of her novel—both because of the derision of her colleagues and because of the ways she wove historical details into the text. Then, of course, we have the real author Carol Goodman juxtaposing in ingenious ways Ellis’s novel with the lives of the historical characters Ellis imagines. That wowed me the most, I think, this tight interweaving between what “really” happened (remember, this is fiction) and what the fictional author surmises.
In some ways, this sort of meta fiction reminded me of a Margaret Atwood book The Lady Oracle. Lest you ask, no, I am not related to Margaret Atwood. Alas.
Recently, I read an interesting post by Roz Morris in which she discusses authors tying up loose ends at the conclusion of novels–as in how much is too much. If there is one flaw of The Ghost Orchid, it is that the author meticulously ties and triple ties (just to make sure) each of the multiple story threads. I thought if one more red-tipped blackbird feather fell from an overhead branch (reader beware: symbol alert) as it does in a triptych of conclusions, I would expire. And then there would be one more forlorn apparition wandering the woods of Bosco.