I tend to have pretty strong reactions to books. I love them–or at least love parts of them. Or, I hate them and, therefore, bail. I think one of the reasons for my reactions is that I honestly only read books if I’m in the mood for them. It is, therefore, a rare occasion that I read a book that I want to love, that has me intrigued, but at the end, my reaction isn’t that strong. That’s how I feel about Brunonia Barry’s newest novel, The Fifth Petal.
I read Barry’s first novel, The Lace Reader, in 2010, and I had a similar reaction, but over time, I remember only the parts I enjoyed–seeing it through rose-colored reading glasses, I guess. When I heard that Barry was releasing a second novel that features characters from the first, I was eager to read it. During the fall, I searched high and low for a good witchy story (that I haven’t read) that was set in Salem, MA. I never found it, so I was excited to let the author transport me again to Salem and bewitch me with an atmospheric tale.
The Fifth Petal, a sequel of sorts to her previous novel, focuses on a new, rather than a continuing, storyline. The story begins with a prologue set in Salem the day after Halloween in 1989. A little girl has been found by a group of nuns at a grisly scene where three young women–including the girl’s mother–have been murdered. The only suspect is Rose Whelan, a noted scholar and curator of the city’s Center for Salem Witch Trials Research. Her connection with the women extends into the past, all of them descendants of the women tried and executed for witchcraft in 1692.
In 2014, Rose is a homeless outcast who has never recovered from the trauma of the Goddess Murders. When a young,troubled boy is found dead, seemingly killed by Rose’s banshee scream, Rose finds herself suspect again, and the unsolved Goddess Murder case is reopened. With the spotlight on Rose, the once lost little girl and only witness to the original murders, returns to Salem to try to prove Rose’s innocence and to discover who really killed her mother.
I enjoy a gripping story, am fascinated by the Salem witch trials, and I love a good whodunit, especially one with a supernatural bent. This novel seemed to have all of those things, but it just didn’t quite work for me. Although the premise of The Fifth Petal is interesting, the setting atmospheric, and the story gripping enough for me to keep reading, it felt as if the parts didn’t come together.
I like to relax into and get lost in a story, but I couldn’t do it with this one. Jarring transitions led me to skim previous pages to make sure I hadn’t missed something. One minute the detective is drinking tea; then, he is in another town miles away interrogating a suspect.
There also were too many secondary, unnecessary plotlines and too much exposition. The author took a long and labored route to get to the big reveal (which I suspected early on). It just didn’t have the payoff I need from a mystery. If I remember correctly, The Lace Reader kept me guessing for much longer and had a bigger payoff.
I also found the characters and their motivations unrealistic and a bit shallow. At certain moments, the writing is particularly beautiful, thought-provoking, and full of depth and imagery. But, those moments are overshadowed by women whose only motivations seem to be competition with one another, and men who just want to protect the women. Barry tries for depth, but focuses too much on the history instead of fully drawing the characters.
All that said, I’m not sorry that I read the book. But, I do think it was trying to be too many things instead of just telling a good story.
Thank you to Netgalley for the digital copy in exchange for an honest review.