In Search of the Rose Notes
by Emily Arsenault (South Africa 2004–06)
William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins
Reviewed by Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 1973-74)
SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD ROSE BANKS routinely babysat Nora and her friend Charlotte after school in 1990, while the sixth-graders waited for Charlotte’s parents to return from work.
Then Rose vanished one afternoon in November, after walking Nora home.
Had she run away? Or was the truth darker, an unspeakable violation of the peaceful New England town where they lived? Stricken by the knowledge that she had been the last person to see the charming, irreverent Rose before she disappeared, Nora reluctantly joined Charlotte in an attempt to solve the mystery, with help from Charlotte’s beloved Time/Life books on The Occult. It was a fruitless collaboration that ultimately derailed the girls’ childhood friendship.
Fast-forward to May, 2006: Charlotte, who teaches in the same high school the girls once attended, calls Nora to tell her that Rose’s remains have been found. Nora — now a pottery artist living in Washington, DC — finds herself drawn back to the hometown she fled when she graduated, and to her past as the silent, oddball loner. She patiently unwinds the circumstances of Rose’s disappearance in a first-person account that alternates between 2006 and the early 1990s.
Emily Arsenault’s In Search of the Rose Notes is more than a mystery; it’s a finely-written meditation on identity and perception. You can tell how skillful a writer is by the way she reveals the background necessary to the story: Arsenault informs the reader though conversation that feels so real it might be eavesdropped, then deftly fills in the blanks with flashback scenes, one to a chapter.
I confess that the divided chapter technique initially jarred me. But once I warmed to it, the contrast of present day with the jigsaw-puzzle glimpses of Nora’s past worked well to move the story and flesh out its inhabitants. Arsenault’s adolescents are complex and casually cruel, and as conflicted as the adults they become. She maintains her narrator’s quirks and tics beautifully; in spite of the differences in circumstance and wisdom between the young Nora and her adult self, they are undeniably the same person. Nor does the author sacrifice the believability of her other characters; each is fully-realized, and grows credibly — and entertainingly — from the past into the present.
The mystery at the center of the book is very specific to the characters and their small-town milieu. So I doubt we’ll see Nora stalking Waverly, CT, to bird-dog new and suspiciously convenient murders, a la Jessica Fletcher, in a series of color-related titles. Which is kind of sad; I’d love to meet her again. However, this is the second of two non-related mysteries that Arsenault has written. I just downloaded The Broken Teaglass to my Kindle; if it’s as well-constructed and quirky as In Search of the Rose Notes, I’ll consider it a worthwhile purchase indeed.
Susan O’Neill is the author of Don’t Mean Nothing, a short-story collection very loosely based on her hitch as an Army nurse during the Viet Nam war. She writes short fiction and essays, and novels that seem reluctant to crawl out of her trunk, and blogs here under the title of Off The Matrix. She also edits Vestal Review, a magazine for Flash Fiction. Her website: http://susanoneill.us .
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