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A Novel

Written by Carol GoodmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Carol Goodman

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On Sale: June 29, 2004
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-47845-0
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Artfully imagined, intricately detailed, eerily poignant: these are the outstanding features of Carol Goodman’s literary thrillers. She is part novelist, part craftsman—and The Drowning Tree is her newest masterpiece.

Juno McKay intended to avoid the nearby campus of her alma mater during her fifteenth reunion weekend, but she just can’t turn down the chance to see her longtime friend, Christine Webb, speak at the Penrose College library. Though Juno cringes at the inevitable talk of the pregnancy that kept her from graduating, and of her husband, Neil Buchwald, who ended up in a mental hospital only two years after their wedding, Juno endures the gossip for her friend’s sake. Christine’s lecture sends shockwaves through the rapt crowd when she reveals little-known details about the lives of two sisters, Eugenie and Clare—members of the powerful and influential family whose name the college bears. Christine’s revelation throws shadows of betrayal, lust, and insanity onto the family’s distinguished facade.

But after the lecture, Christine seems distant, uneasy, and sad. The next day, she disappears. Juno immediately suspects a connection to her friend’s shocking speech. Although painfully reminded of her own experience with Neil’s mental illness, Juno nevertheless peels away the layers of secrets and madness that surround the Penrose dynasty. She fears that Christine discovered something damning about them, perhaps even something worth killing for. And Juno is determined to find it—for herself, for her friend, and for her long-lost husband.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

I WAS LATE FOR CHRISTINE'S LECTURE.

I almost didn't go. I wouldn't have gone if she hadn't especially asked me to come. The force of her preference was as irresistible now as it had been nearly twenty years ago when of all the girls at Penrose College she chose me to be her best friend. So even though I'd made a vow to avoid the campus during reunion--and had managed to do so, so far--I find myself on Sunday afternoon rushing through the lengthening shadows toward the library, just as I had on so many Sunday evenings during college, making a last dash to catch up on everything I'd avoided doing all weekend.

Usually it was Christine herself who had lured me away from my work in the first place, who had unearthed me from whatever hole I'd buried myself in. "The Middle Ages can wait," she'd say, "but the Sargent exhibit at the Whitney is ending this weekend." She was always reading about some art exhibit that was just about to close. Carried along by her enthusiasm, I'd follow her to the train station, trying to keep up with her fast stride, in the wake of her long blond hair that streamed out behind her like the wings of a dove quivering on a current of air.

As I open the heavy library door I almost catch a glimpse of that hair, shining in a swath of sun behind me, but of course it's an illusion. Christine is inside, standing at the podium, miraculously transformed into this older, more constrained woman--a lecturer--her long golden hair tamed into a sleek coil.

"This is where you'd find me," Christine is saying to the audience as I slide into a folding chair in the back of the crowded hall--even the second-story galleries are packed with students sitting on the floor between the stacks--"after dinner Sunday nights, when the work I'd happily neglected all weekend finally caught up with me."

Rueful sighs stir the group seated beneath the stained-glass window. Clearly, I'm not the only one who'd been reminded, walking toward the library through the late afternoon sunshine, of those last minute penitential pilgrimages. And this is where I would find her, already at work on some paper due the next day, somehow arrived before me even though when we'd finally gotten back to the dorm from the city she'd claimed she was going to her room to sleep. While the escapades she'd led me on left me tired and bleary-eyed, they somehow left Christine refreshed and inspired. She had managed to write through the night and the paper she'd turn in on Monday morning would be the one the professors would hold up as the most original, the most brilliant.

"When I approached the table here below the window I always imagined that the Lady looked down at me askance," Christine continues, "'Oh, so you've finally seen fit to join us,' I imagined her saying. I believe I endowed her with the voice of Miss Colclough, my sophomore Chaucer professor." Christine pauses for another ripple of knowing laughter. Miss Coldclaw--as we called her--was legendary for her withering comments and draconian teaching methods. "In fact, over the years, as I studied below her I endowed the Lady in the Window with many roles--muse, companion, judge. But of course these were my own projections. What we've come to consider today is who she really is, what she has to tell us--the class of 1987--about ourselves, and why it's so important that we save her from decay."

Christine turns slightly and tilts her head up, meeting the gaze of the figure in the glass as if she had been passing on the street and recognized a friend at a second-story window. Throughout the lecture she turns like this to address the Lady as if they were contemporaries--and truly, even though Christine is dressed in a spare, sleeveless black shift (Prada, I think) and the Lady is robed in a medieval gown of embroidered damask (ruby glass acid-etched with a millefleur pattern and layered with white drapery glass), there is a kinship between the two women. There's something in the curve of their spines--Christine's when she leans back to look up at the window, the Lady as she arches her back away from her loom to look up from her labors--that echoes each other. They've got the same yellow hair. The Lady's by virtue of a medieval metallurgical process called silver stain, Christine's thanks to a colorist on the Upper East Side. The Lady's abundant Pre-Raphaelite locks, though, are loose, while Christine's long blond hair is twisted in a knot so heavy that when she bows her head back down to her notes her slender neck seems to pull against the strain. I realize, from that strain and from how thin she's gotten, what a toll this lecture has taken on her and instantly forgive her for not making time to see me these last six or seven months--the longest we've gone without seeing each other since college.

"No doubt we all heard the same story on the campus tour. The window was designed by Augustus Penrose, founder of the Rose Glass Works and Penrose College, in 1922 for the twentieth anniversary of the college's founding and it depicts Augustus's beloved wife, Eugenie. As we all know, Penrose College grew out of The Woman's Craft League which Eugenie had created for the wives and daughters of the men who worked in her husband's factory."

A college born from a glorified sewing circle, is how Christine put it once, a bit too loudly, at a freshman tea. But of course she doesn't say that to this assembly of women in their tailored linen skirts and pastel silk blouses, their Coach bags and sensible Ferragamo shoes. Penrose College may have originated from a socialist dream of aiding women from the underclasses, but it soon became a bastion of East Coast wealth and privilege.

"But before we accept that the Lady in the Window is merely a celebration of the medieval craftswoman," Christine continues, "let's review the social and artistic background of Augustus Penrose. His family owned a glass works in England, Penrose & Sons, in Kelmscott, a small village on the Thames River near Oxford, which supplied medieval quality glass for stained-glass designers, including William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite artist who also happened to live in Kelmscott. Young Augustus was particularly influenced by the opinions of William Morris, who believed that integrity ought to be restored to the decorative arts. When Simon Barovier, a wealthy factory owner from the north, purchased Penrose & Sons, he encouraged young Augustus in his artistic pursuits--and so did Barovier's daughter, Eugenie, who fell in love with Augustus. As you know, the two married, and were sent by old Simon over to this country in the 1890s to found an American branch of the glass works. Augustus and Eugenie wanted to do more, though, than run a glass factory. Influenced by Morris's ideas, they were soon in the vanguard of the Arts & Crafts Movement..."

Now that Christine has moved onto the firmer ground of her expertise in art history I let out a breath I hadn't known I was holding. I realize how nervous I am for her--how much I want this lecture to be a success for her--a comeback.

Back in college, Christine had a sort of glow about her--a radiant energy that drew people to her. We all believed she would go on to great things--even when she eschewed a PhD in favor of a job at a New York gallery and freelance writing on the arts. We thought then that she'd write a brilliant book or at least marry one of the famous artists she was often seen with at gallery openings. By the tenth reunion, when none of these things had happened and she got so drunk that she passed out during the Farewell Brunch, that glow of promise began to fade. Her name disappeared from the class notes; when I ran into people from the college that had known her they would ask after her with a solicitous edge of concern in their voices as if expecting to hear the worst. Sometimes, I suspected, hoping to hear the worst.

Many were surprised, then, when the programs for the fifteenth reunion arrived with the announcement that Christine would be delivering the lecture on the Lady window which the class of 1987 had elected to restore as their class gift. I wasn't, though, because I'd seen Christine through rehab four years ago and urged her to apply for a Penrose Grant, which supported alumnae who wanted to switch careers ten to twenty years out of college (the "second-chance" grant we often called it, a perfect prize for Christine who always managed to pull her act together at the last minute and shine brilliantly) so that she could go back to graduate school. I even suggested she make the window the subject of her thesis and when McKay Glass won the bid to do the restoration of the window--the first really big conservation project we've gotten since I convinced my father to expand into stained-glass restoration--I suggested to the college that Christine deliver this lecture. So you couldn't really blame me for being nervous for her.

While Christine's lecturing on the Pre-Raphaelites and Arts & Crafts Movement (material I've heard before), I let my mind wander and my gaze shift to the window itself--brilliant now in the late afternoon sun. The upper half is dominated by a large rounded window--a window within a window--which frames a green pool carpeted with water lilies and shaded by a weeping beech. The view of mountains in the distance is the same as the view we would see if the window were clear--the deeply wooded hills of the Hudson Highlands on the western bank--still forested because Augustus Penrose bought up all the land on that side of the river for his mansion, Astolat. When Astolat burned down in the 1930s he and Eugenie moved back to Forest Hall, their house on this side of the river. All that's left of Astolat are the water gardens that Penrose designed--the centerpiece of which was a lily pool similar to the one depicted in the window.

Although the window is executed in opalescent glass and uses techniques made popular by Tiffany and LaFarge in the 1880s, the Lady herself could well be from a medieval window. Of course, as Christine is explaining now, the Pre-Raphaelites were in love with the Middle Ages--and in love with beautiful women with long flowing hair and expressions of abandon. This one has just looked up from her work. As she arches her back you can feel the strain of the long hours she has spent bending over her loom. A flush of color--skillfully produced by sanguine, a hematite-based paint used since the sixteenth century to enhance flesh tones--rises from her low-cut bodice up her long neck to the plane of her high cheekbones. It makes you wonder what she's been dreaming of over her loom.

"What I always wondered," Christine is saying now, "is why she is looking away from the window and why she has such a rapturous expression on her face. Her expression suggests some kind of revelation. Who is this weaver supposed to be? Remember that Augustus rarely painted his beloved Eugenie just as Eugenie. As the Pre-Raphaelite painters he admired had before him, Augustus often chose to depict his model in the guise of a figure from literature."

Christine presses a button on the speaker's dais and a slide screen unrolls on the wall to the right of the window and fills with an image of a young girl bending over a lily pool, her cascading hair turning into heavy branches that trail into the water, a sheath of bark just beginning to creep up her slim legs. "In fact, the only other work without a known mythological source is this one, The Drowning Tree, which seems to echo the tales of transformation Penrose was so fond of. He painted Eugenie as Daphne turning into a laurel as she flees from Apollo--" The Drowning Tree fades and is replaced with the more familiar image of the running girl sprouting leaves from her fingertips, "--and as the nymph Salmacis merging in her sacred pool with Hermaphroditus, and Halcyone turning into a kingfisher with her drowned husband..."

Christine clicks through one picture after another, naming each mythological or literary figure as the image appears and fades. She goes so quickly that the faces begin to blur together until we are left with the impression of one face--one woman appearing in many guises. Which is, of course, the impression Christine has been trying to create. They are all Eugenie--whether frightened as Daphne, lusting like Salmacis, or in the throes of shape-shifting like Halcyone. When the screen goes dark an image of that face--radiant, haloed by bright red gold hair--seems to burn on the blank screen for just an instant, glowing like the face in the stained glass-window.



"WHO, THEN, IS SHE--OUR LADY IN THE WINDOW? WHY, AFTER ALL THESE TALES OF transformation, would Augustus chose to depict Eugenie as some anonymous weaver in his last known portrait of her? To answer that question I ask you to notice the 'window' at her back. Many people have assumed that the landscape in the window depicts a view of the Hudson Highlands where Penrose built his grand estate, Astolat. But if you look carefully at the arrangement of ridges in the landscape,"--the flickering red arrow of Christine's laser pointer skims over the ridgelines in the window--"and compare them to the arrangement of hills in the actual landscape"--a photograph of the view across the river appears on the slide screen--"you will notice that the ridges are actually reversed. This is not a window--it's a mirror reflecting a window.

"And in what medieval story is a beautiful young maiden condemned to look at life only in its reflection? Why 'The Lady of Shalott' of course, Tennyson's version of an Arthurian legend. You probably remember it from Miss Ramsey's Nineteenth-century Lit class."

What I remember from Miss Ramsey's class was having to memorize Tennyson's endless ode to friendship, "In Memoriam." But as Christine outlines the story, "The Lady of Shalott" comes back to me: the enchanted maiden in her island tower, prohibited from looking directly at the world, weaving what she sees reflected in a mirror set opposite the window....

I look at the river landscape in the window and then at the scene unfolding in the Lady's loom. If this were the Lady of Shalott, they would be identical, but they are not. In fact the loom is blank. She seems to be weaving plain, unfigured cloth.

Still Christine makes a good argument for identifying the Lady in the Window with the heroine of Tennyson's poem. The name Augustus Penrose gave his mansion--Astolat--is an alternate name for Shalott. The pose of our Lady is similar to that of several Pre-Raphaelite Ladies of Shalott, as Christine demonstrates through a series of slides. She even has an explanation for why the scenes in the window and on the loom don't match. According to Eugenia Penrose's design notebook, the original painted panes for those sections were cracked during firing and had to be replaced by plain colored glass in order for the window to be ready in time for the library's dedication.


From the Hardcover edition.
Carol Goodman|Author Q&A

About Carol Goodman

Carol Goodman - The Drowning Tree

Photo © (c) Brian Velenchenko

Carol Goodman is the author of The Lake of Dead Languages, The Seduction of Water, The Drowning Tree, The Ghost Orchid, The Sonnet Lover, and The Night Villa. The Seduction of Water won the Hammett Prize, and others of her novels have been nominated for the Dublin/IMPAC Award and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her fiction has been translated into eight languages. She lives in New York State with her family.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Carol Goodman

Jennifer Morgan Gray is a writer and editor who lives in Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Morgan Gray: Was there a particular character, image, or idea that inspired you to begin writing The Drowning Tree? Did you begin with the vision of a character, a relationship, or, perhaps, a painting?

Carol Goodman: Several years before I started The Drowning Tree, I saw a friend off at Grand Central Station and had the thought, “What if I put her on this train and she never arrives at her destination?” (I'm full of these kinds of morbid musings, unfortunately.) Then, sometime after that, I attended a lecture on the Elena Cornaro window at Vassar, and I pictured two women, one giving a lecture on a stained-glass window, and then the other, seeing her off at the train, getting that last glimpse of her friend in the window and then never seeing her (alive) again. That’s the image I started with.

JMG: The title, The Drowning Tree, could mean many different things, from the literal painting that takes center stage in the book to the more metaphorical. How did you choose this title to grace the book? Were there any other titles that you considered and then abandoned?

CG: The title was originally The Lady in the Window, because that was the central image I started with: the lady in the stained-glass window and Christine seen by Juno through the train window. As I worked on the book, though, the imagery of Ovid’s myths seemed more central to the story I was telling. I especially became attached to the image of the weeping beech tree, so I made up a faux-Ovidian myth to incorporate the weeping beech, and then thought it had a nice ring to it as a title. I like a title that could mean several things, so the fact that “the drowning tree” could refer to the painting or the myth and that the phrase itself was ambiguous (Is the tree drowning? Is it a place where people drown?) made it appealing as well.

JMG: You frame The Drowning Tree with one of Juno’s dreams. Why did you decide to begin the novel in this way? As Neil “had become obsessed with his dreams” (p. 90), how do Juno and the other characters follow suit, being consumed with dreams in both the literal and the figurative sense—the imagined paths and dashed hopes of their lives?

CG: I didn’t write the prologue with Juno’s dream until the book was finished. The first chapter starts the way it does because, as I mentioned above, that’s the image I started with: a woman putting her friend on a train. But when I looked back I realized that the novel becomes as much a story of Juno and Neil as of Juno and Christine (or perhaps the triangle described by the three of them), and I came up with the idea of starting with Juno’s dream. That Juno has been dreaming about Neil is important, both because of the significance Neil attached to dreams in their relationship and because it shows how Juno is still so haunted by her love for Neil.

On a more personal note, I spent years having vivid dreams about someone I loved and had lost, and because this person had believed in “astral projection,” I always had the eerie feeling that he was actually visiting me in my dreams. Curiously, I stopped having those dreams once I finished writing The Drowning Tree.

JMG: In the book’s opening pages, Juno remarks that Christine “chose me to be her best friend” (p. 6). How does this instant attention from Christine affect Juno? Does Juno have agency in choosing Christine as a friend, as well, or is she a more passive participant in that relationship? What would draw each woman to the other?

CG: I’ve always been interested in the idea of one person choosing another. It goes back to the medieval dichotomy between lover and beloved. Juno is validated in some vital way by Christine’s attention, but I think it also clouds her vision of Christine. In other words, Juno sees Christine as this vital life force that is very appealing, but she doesn’t fully see how vulnerable Christine is—how much Christine needs her as much as Juno needs her.

JMG: Christine’s lecture on a painting featuring the Lady in the Window drives the plot of the book. What about the speech is so shocking and revelatory to those around her? What about the painting is so compelling to Christine? To her audience?

CG: Like many institutions, Penrose College has idealized its founder, Eugenie Penrose, and so the community is understandably unhappy at Christine’s suggestion that the window depicts not Eugenie but her sister, Clare. For Christine, though, the Lady in the Window has always been a benevolent presence, a sort of guardian angel. The possibility that she was actually a woman who had gone mad and been institutionalized would be especially disturbing to Christine given her fears about her own mental stability. Each character projects his or her own set of values on the figure of the Lady.

JMG: You write about art in an extremely vivid, tactile way. Did you find it difficult to evoke the paintings that form the core of this book with words? Were there any visual “crutches” you used, like already-existing paintings or sketches?

CG: I’m a frustrated artist and so I get a secret thrill out of describing works of art that I would like to be able to create myself. So, actually, describing the paintings is mostly fun for me. I looked at a great deal of Pre-Raphaelite art (like Christine I covered the walls of my college dorm room with reproductions of Pre-Raphaelite paintings) and read books on the Pre-Raphaelites to get ideas for the “invented paintings” described. It was fun to imagine how artists might have treated different myths—and even to invent one of the myths. Probably the single most important artist whose work I drew from was J. W. Waterhouse. I have a copy of his Ophelia hanging above my desk even now.

JMG: The river is a living, breathing character in the novel, and I was struck with how the blueprint of the book itself mirrors a river—constantly churning with possibilities that engulf the reader. Was this intentional on your part as you were writing? How do you view the river as a living, breathing character in the book?

CG: I think it’s become second nature to me by now to use the landscape to mirror the moods of my characters, and certainly the Hudson presented itself as a rich, moving canvas. When I started this book I thought that for once I’d stay away from water imagery, but then I read about the construction of Dia: Beacon [museum] and decided I wanted Juno to live in an old factory on the Hudson. Then I took a little kayaking trip on the Hudson, and I was so awed by the sensation of being out on the river in that little boat (which I found every bit as terrifying as Juno did) that I knew that experience would be the visceral center of the book—that feeling of being swept up in something larger than oneself.

JMG: The story of Augustus, Eugenie, and Clare emerges from Christine’s research and, most vividly, from Eugenie’s journals. Why did you choose to construct the book so that Juno reads about the Penroses in Eugenie’s own words?

CG: I got the idea of the hidden journal pages from a stained-glass restorer who told me that medieval workmen sometimes stuffed papers into the crevices of frames. I just loved the idea of finding a hidden manuscript—sort of like a message in a bottle. Once Juno had those papers I had to create Eugenie’s voice, which seemed as good a way of telling the past story as any. I often end up using some kind of “text within a text,” like the sections of the mother’s fantasy novel in The Seduction of Water or Jane’s old journal entries in The Lake of Dead Languages. I don’t know why. It appeals to me in a very primal way, the way finding a hidden treasure map is exciting for a child.

JMG: Christine and Neil seem to share some striking similarities—from their larger-than-life personalities to their predisposition toward addictive behaviors and mental illness. Why, then, does Juno become the object of Neil’s affection? What about her is so compelling to both Neil and Christine? With that affection for her best friend in mind, why would Christine embark on an affair with Neil many years later?

CG: Funny, I’ve thought more about why Juno would be drawn to them than vice versa, because, I suppose, I’ve found myself drawn to people like Neil and Christine many times in my life—people who are charismatic and larger than life. I never wondered why they would be drawn to someone like me—someone who tends to be a little quieter and shyer. I suppose Neil and Christine might have been attracted to her relative stability. As for why Christine has the affair with Neil—I think there was always an attraction simmering below the surface, and Christine is, I think, a person who might act impetuously. It’s part of her charm, but also one of her flaws.

JMG: You present the specter of mental illness as haunting the entire town of Rosedale. What does the physical entity Briarwood represent to its residents, both terrible and worthy? How are the approaches of Neil and Christine toward mental illness similar? How are they different?

CG: I liked the idea of the physical presence of Briarwood looming over the countryside as some gothic specter of madness. I hoped it would echo the way many of the characters feel haunted by mental illness, either in their family history or in the recesses of their own personalities. The main difference between Neil and Christine is that Neil is obviously much more impaired by mental illness. Also, as an artist, he’s afraid that medicating his ailment will also destroy his art. Christine, on the other hand, has spent most of her adult life trying to self-medicate.

JMG: Art and mythology—and their interweaving nature—play paramount roles in the book. Do you have a particular background or interest in either of those disciplines, or did you research them as you were writing? Was there one myth that came to mind in particular as you were crafting the novel?

CG: Art and classical mythology are both subjects I studied in college and that I’ve continued to read about and take classes in. Since my first novel I’ve tried to incorporate mythology or fairy tales into the story. In The Drowning Tree I decided to focus on the mythology that was most often used by the Pre-Raphaelites, including classical mythology, fairy tales, Arthurian legends, and Romantic poetry. Instead of focusing on one myth, I wanted to use a corpus of myths that would seem to populate the whole fictional world in the book.

JMG: You explore the mother-daughter relationship in different ways here, from Juno’s positive rapport with Bea and her loving if short-lived relationship with her mother, to Christine’s difficult time with her mother. How does Juno evolve as a mother as the book continues? What kind of mother might Christine have made?

CG: Juno recognizes during the book that although she lost her own mother early she had the advantage of that early support. I may have been reflecting on my own mother’s experience. She lost her mother when she was quite young, but she’s always maintained that her early childhood experience of a warm and loving family gave her an inner security that saw her through that trauma. As a mother, I believe that that early sense of being loved is the most valuable thing you can give a child. I think that by the end of the book Juno is able to look at Bea and realize that Bea has that inner strength and that whatever they have to go through together—the pain of losing Neil, for instance—they’ll be able to endure.

I can’t predict what sort of mother Christine would have been. Although scarred by her upbringing, she’s clearly capable of loving and that, I think, is half the battle.

JMG: Juno remarks that Penrose inhabits a place apart from the rest of the town and the world. How does the uneasy relationship between the town and the school affect both communities? Was the school based on any college in particular?

CG: I suppose it’s inevitable that Penrose resembles my own alma mater, Vassar, in some ways, although I pictured it rather differently. Certainly Vassar has the same sense of being an idealized enclave set apart from the working-class town outside its gates, and it does have the Elena Cornaro (first woman doctorate!) window in the library. However, I picture Penrose as smaller and younger than Vassar and more artistic and socialist in its origins. Maybe a little more like Sarah Lawrence. I pictured its setting something like Mount Saint Vincent’s. Ultimately, though, it’s a product of my imagination.

JMG: In his eulogy, Gavin characterizes Christine as “too relentless in her search for the truth” (p. 123). How true is this assessment? What else motivates her scholarship on the paintings and at Penrose? How do other characters in the novel also search for truth?

CG: Well, Gavin sees it that way because the truths that Christine was trying to uncover were uncomfortable for him. I see Christine as a person who speaks her mind even when it makes others around her uncomfortable. This is a trait I admire, but which I think I sometimes lack. I’m more the sort of person who second-guesses and worries endlessly about how my words will affect other people. I’m probably more like Juno, who, at the start of the novel, has avoided really facing what happened to Neil. By the end of the novel she’s developed a bit more gumption—something I’m always striving to acquire more of myself.

JMG: Like other novels that you’ve written, including The Seduction of Water and The Lake of Dead Languages, The Drowning Tree is at once a literary novel and a mystery. What about thrillers and mysteries entices you? Does the compulsion to solve a puzzle drive you while you’re writing? While starting the book, did you know that Christine’s death would be a motivating factor for the action that transpires—and did you know who killed her?

CG: I like reading mysteries, although my favorite mysteries tend to be quirky, cross-genre ones. The puzzles that interest me the most are puzzles of character—why people are the way they are, how they got that way. When I start a book I start with a character whom I don’t completely understand—someone who’s in a situation that I find intriguing. What I want to know is how she got into this mess and how’s she going to get out of it. I think it’s exciting to combine this sort of personal dilemma with a wider, far-reaching mystery—something where the consequences of not finding out the solution are dire. So I knew that Christine’s death would be the event that sets everything into motion. I had a good idea who killed her. But I wasn’t sure how Juno would find this out or how it would change her life.

JMG: How did you pick Juno’s name? Did you also choose the name Christine—reminiscent of an important figure in Christian faith—on purpose?

CG: Usually I have an elaborate rationale for a character’s name, but in this case I knew I wanted something mythological and I just liked the sound of Juno!

Christine does study early Christian icons, but I didn’t mean for her to symbolize any abstract value. Again the name just sounded right to me. It might have had something to do with the connection between crystal and glass. Her last name is more significant. Webb—like the web that the Lady of Shalott weaves on her loom.

JMG: There’s a tension that exists between the romantic artist—Neil—and the science-steeped doctor, Dr. Horace. Both of these individuals, however, grapple with madness and do so in very different ways. What parallels were you interested in drawing between these two different mind-sets and ways of approaching life?

CG: Well, I’d hate to have Dr. Horace taken as an embodiment of science or medicine, since I’ve certainly known many commendable men and women in those fields. In fact, in researching this book I talked to several psychologists who were extremely helpful and compassionate, and the genetic counselor who answered all my questions about genetic testing (after she told me that I didn’t have the breast cancer gene) was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Dr. Horace, though, falls victim to the danger of thinking that you can medicate every problem, while Neil has been perhaps too resistant to the benefits of medication. The conflict interests me because of the proliferation of psychopharmaceuticals in our society.
I often find myself suspicious of the quickness with which doctors prescribe drugs like Prozac or Ritalin, but I’ve also always tried to keep an open mind about the benefits of such drugs.

JMG: What, ultimately, do you think Juno realizes about love? How has her attitude changed—if at all—from her youthful perceptions? How do her feelings about Neil differ from those she harbors toward Kyle? What about Detective Falco strikes a chord in her heart?

CG: A theme that runs through much of my writing is the idea of an early lost love and whether it’s possible to get over that loss—will anyone else ever be able to take the place of that person? When the novel begins, Juno hasn’t been able to move on from the breakup of her marriage with Neil. She uses her responsibilities to Bea as an excuse to keep herself emotionally sealed off. She’s unable to connect to Kyle, for instance. Daniel Falco is the first man since Neil who breaks through that protective covering,
I think, perhaps, because he’s the first person to really see her suffering.

JMG: Neil makes the ultimate sacrifice at the end of the novel, saving Juno’s life but losing his own in the process. Why does he do so? What did Juno, in turn, sacrifice for her ex-husband?

CG: I think Neil saves Juno’s life because he loves her. Juno tries to save him, as well, and might well have drowned if she hadn’t imagined right at the end that she saw Neil transformed into a seabird coming toward her over the water. I’d like to think that that vision is also Neil’s way of saving her.

JMG: Are there any creative rituals or processes you follow when you’re writing? Anything in particular you did for this book?

CG: I wouldn’t necessarily call it ritual so much as a routine and research. I walk a few miles every morning before writing, and then I always write my drafts in long hand in black-and-white marble notebooks. I used the notebooks before I wrote The Lake of Dead Languages, but once I used them as a plot element in that book I became superstitiously attached to them. I also try to surround myself with images from the world I’m writing about, so I found copies of Pre-Raphaelite paintings to hang over my desk. I visited the Cloisters several times in the course of writing the book and walked in the Ramble in Central Park and looked at a lot of stained glass. I even took a class in making stained glass—and discovered that I’m really bad at it!

JMG: What can your readers expect to see next from you?

CG: I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel set in an artists’ colony on the edge of the Adirondacks. Half of the book takes place in the nineteenth century and concerns a medium who visits the estate (before it becomes an artists’ colony) and performs a séance there. The book has more of a supernatural element than I’ve ever used before. And yes, it has water, but here the water is all underground in the springs that feed the estate’s elaborate fountains, and they have, in the present part of the story, dried up. I had great fun learning about nineteenth-century mediums and planning the formal Italianate garden.

Praise

Praise

“Goodman’s early promise comes to full flower in this work . . . A novel full of surprises.”
–The Denver Post

“[A] captivating literary mystery of secrets old and new.”
–Publishers Weekly
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Why do you think Goodman chose glass as the medium for Juno’s restoration work and much of the artwork discussed in the novel—the Lady window in particular? How is the metaphor of glass carried through the novel?

2. Juno attributes some of Neil’s artistic brilliance to his mental illness. Do you think that the age-old association between madness and creativity is valid? Why would such a connection exist?

3. When Juno encounters Christine’s lifeless body in the Wicomico, she initially mistakes it for her own reflection. To what extent is Juno’s fascination with Christine a fascination with herself? What are the similarities and differences between the two women?

4. Christine tells Juno that what she fears most is going insane. What part did this fear play in her eventual downfall? Do you think fear alone is enough to drive a healthy person insane?

5. It is said many times that Bea is remarkably mature for her age. Do you think that dealing with difficult circumstances in childhood breeds early maturity? Can you think of specific incidents or situations in your life that forced you to grow up?

6. Juno speculates that despite her criticism and disapproval of Christine, Ruth Webb still loved her daughter. Mothers and daughters have notoriously complex relationships, but do you think that it’s possible for a mother not to love her daughter in some way?

7. While in the Cloisters museum during college, Christine asks Juno why she thinks Dante has to go all the way into hell to find his way again? Why do you think this question so fascinates Christine?

8. So many characters in The Drowning Tree are preoccupied with their search for the truth. Do you think it’s always best to know the truth in every situation? Can you think of instances from your own life when you would have preferred to be left in ignorance?

9. When considering the charmed though restrictive childhood of Gavin Penrose, Juno asks herself, “How can you ever really tell if people are happy?” Are there definitive marks of a “happy” person? Are there any characters in The Drowning Tree whom you would classify as happy people?

10. Juno writes that, in the early days of her relationship with Neil, Christine’s presence steadied the young couple like the third leg of a tripod. Do you think Christine was a necessary presence in Juno and Neil’s relationship? What did she do to strengthen their bond, and what did she do to cripple it?

11. Do you think that Juno’s comparison of her love triangle with Neil and Christine to the relationship between Augustus Penrose and the Barovier sisters is an apt one? What makes the two trios different, and what parallels match up?

12. Almost every family has its own version of the boogeyman who comes to get naughty children. The constant threat in the Webb household was that if you didn’t behave yourself you’d “end up uphill.” What do you think the threats parents use with their children reveal about the parent? Was there a boogeyman in your household?

13. Where, if anywhere, do you think the moral responsibility lies for the death of the boy in Kyle’s Colorado kayaking accident? Have you ever felt responsible for something that wasn’t necessarily your fault?

14. The first chapter of The Drowning Tree begins with the lines “I was late for Christine’s lecture. I almost didn’t go.” In the last pages of the novel, Goodman repeats, “I was late for the lecture. I almost didn’t go.” Why do you think the novel is framed with these lines? How do actions almost not done alter the twists and turns of the plot?

15. While Beatrice is away on a kayaking trip, Juno certainly has a tumultuous few weeks. If you were in Juno’s shoes, how much of the story would you reveal to your teenage daughter?

16. Do you think that there is “love which absolves no one beloved from loving”? Or do you agree with Juno and Falco’s interpretation that once someone is loved they are bound to love another, though not necessarily the person who first admired them?

17. Why do you think Augustus Penrose and Neil Buchwald both preferred to paint their beloveds as characters from mythology, rather than simply paint them as themselves? Would you find such a portrayal of yourself flattering or disempowering?

18. Juno is amazed that Gavin’s assistant, Faye, has a prophylactic mastectomy. It seems to her like a dramatic measure to take for prevention alone. What do you think? Is Faye’s decision admirable, or do you think it was an overreaction on her part?

19. Why did Christine so desperately want to believe that her family was somehow related to the Penroses? Have you ever struggled, as Christine did, to belong to a world so vastly different from your own?

20. Did you think Juno and Neil would eventually get back together? Would The Drowning Tree have had a happy ending, in your opinion, if Neil had survived and they did continue with a romantic relationship?


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