Tuesday, January 02, 2018

The Glass Forest by Cynthia Swanson, psychological suspense set in postwar America

A good way into reading Cynthia Swanson’s The Glass Forest, I asked myself why I was turning each page with a mixture of eagerness and dread. After all, nothing remotely graphic had happened, other than a suicide that was reported early on.

There were plenty of hints, though, that something terrible could occur at any moment. Escalating tension in a marriage. Signs of something dark and twisted about the dynamics within the Glass family. A mystery about the fate of an intelligent career woman whose efforts weren’t appreciated.

The premise: in 1960, Angie Glass, a young wife besotted with her handsome older husband, Paul, and their baby son, travels with her family from bucolic Door County, Wisconsin, to her brother- and sister-in-law’s modern home along the Hudson. Paul’s brother Henry has been found dead, an apparent suicide. Henry’s wife, Silja, has taken off for parts unknown, leaving a note saying she couldn't stay any longer.

Henry and Silja’s daughter Ruby, aged 17, appears strangely composed; perhaps she’s in shock? But Angie wonders if it’s more than that. As Ruby’s aunt-by-marriage, Angie feels it’s her role to mother and comfort Ruby, a quiet and friendless girl, but their closeness in age – she’s just 21 herself – makes her attempts awkward. There were moments I winced at Angie’s naïveté, but I worried alongside her as she gradually absorbed the truth about her husband’s family.

The viewpoint revolves among Angie and Ruby in the novel’s present day, and that of Silja starting in 1942, when she was a bespectacled 20-year-old college student from Brooklyn’s Finnish-American community whose experience of love came from feature films. When Silja meets a Cary Grant lookalike, a GI about to leave for war, she's thrilled – which leads her into an impulsive decision, and a life, that she comes to regret.

Mentions of movie stars, popular singers, and the Nixon-Kennedy television debates denote the timeframe, but what brings the period alive more vibrantly is the author’s evocation of social mores. This was a time when men ruled the household, even if they weren’t the breadwinner, and women had few options for escaping an unwanted marriage.

This novel’s psychological suspense is well articulated, and – without giving anything away – the sense of fear is occasionally generated by what does not happen as much as what does. Because it makes you keenly aware of what people are capable of.

The Glass Forest will be published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster on February 6th; find it on Goodreads here.  Thanks to the publisher for granting access via Edelweiss. This is the last book I read in 2017, and the first one reviewed for 2018.

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