Invisible Boy, Cornelia Read, Grand Central, $24.99.
Cornelia Read's books are rich—an ironic phrase considering that her books are as much a socio-economic critique (veiled in a crackling good story) as they are anything else. Her prose is so delicious and full that it's almost better to try and savor it as you read, a task I frankly find impossible as I have inhaled all three of the books to date.
Her central character, Madeline Dare, from money "so old there's none left", is of a moneyed and privileged world few people experience, and Madeline, the classic mystery outsider, is actually always short of funds, and has been since childhood. Her birthright and her education give her the entrée usually guaranteed by money, but looking at it from her insider/outsider perspective, she rejects much of what she would probably call the bullshit. Here's her whip sharp analysis of the Hamptons: "And Southampton specifically? The place was downright feral, an overpriced Trump-skanky trailer park peopled exclusively by Dobermans with the Hapsburg lip." Much of the prose is similarly entertaining.
Madeline has left the school she worked for in the last book (The Crazy School) and is back in Manhattan with her patient husband, Dean, crammed into an apartment along with her sister Pagan and her roommate. Dean is job hunting and Madeline has a subsistence job. She agrees to help her cousin, Cate, who is clearing out an old cemetery in Queens that apparently also houses many of their mutual dead relatives.
On the first work day, Madeline finds a skeleton—apparently a recent one, of a small child. As she becomes emotionally involved in the investigation, she's given police and legal access in a believable fashion. This novel has the most police and courtroom detail of the three, and it grounds the narrative in reality, while allowing Read to explore her emotional themes.
As the facts are unraveled, it becomes clear that the skeleton is that of a three year old African American boy, a boy whose grandmother has been trying to find him. The resulting family snarl of drug abuse and bad boyfriends are the kernel of the novel's theme, one that takes in every character. Much of the resulting character interaction has to do with both control and the kind of relationship where one person is blinded by, and controlled by, the worst possible person.
There's the mother of the dead boy, controlled by her boyfriend; there's Madeleine's mother, strangely drawn to a former husband who treated her own children terribly; and there's Madeleine's best school friend, Astrid, who is in a perhaps troubled relationship with a very new husband, who also happens to be Dean's boss. And subtly, underneath the story, is a theme of racism and economic opportunity. It's something you'll probably be thinking about after you finish the book.
This is a very American book. A British writer covering this kind of territory would do it in a much different way. Read's method is far more straightforward, and the character interaction and the narrative drive are of equal importance. Americans like a little momentum in their prose, and Read delivers it in spades, with her fresh, vivid, and memorable voice. She's a true original—another American virtue.
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