June 01, 2011

What lies beneath

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Take a lovely tree-shaded campus, add wealthy alums and a big-ticket endowment, and fill it with rich and entitled preppies headed for big-name colleges. Stir with selected townies from working-class Greenville at the bottom of the hill, and flavor with secret student societies (or “freaky cults” as one teacher calls them) and hidden passions at this institution of privilege, and you come up with The Twisted Thread, an addictive summer read written by Charlotte Bacon, a winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction.   

Claire, a beautiful but icy blond senior at Armitage Academy who, incidentally, has just given birth in secret, is found dead in her dorm room. Where is her newborn baby? And who is the father? Why did no one on the faculty know? These dark questions seem preposterous, set as they are in this upscale environment, but they loom large as police detective Matt Corelli (a former graduate of Armitage anda resident of Greenville) and his partner, Vernon Cates, begin to uncover a seamier side of campus life with its welter of cross-currents and relationships.

Central to the story is Madeline Christopher, an intern/teacher in English. With her ebullient, spilling-over personality, mussed-up hair and lack of perfect attire, Madeline becomes both confidante and foil to the girls in her dorm, who alternately confide in, threaten and use her for their own ends in covering up what they know. She must painfully discover for herself how this bastion of wealth conceals the same layers of passion, vulnerability, slyness and deceit that abound outside in the “common” domain.

All the characters in this surprising story are beautifully realized. Each must come to terms with the tension between a knowledge of what lies beneath the surface at Armitage and a desire to keep the superficial calm unruffled. Vernon is an endearing and imaginative addition to the long line of detective partners in mystery fiction. Claire’s former boyfriend, Scotty, snatches at our interest, even though at first glance he seems to inhabit the borders of the story. All the members of the cast, including townies, ancillary faculty wives, too-old faculty members, even the mother of a buildings and grounds worker, emerge as worth listening to in their own right.

Much more than a standard whodunit, this story goes to the heart as it seeks to unravel and lay bare the tensions and costs of living in the cocoon of privilege.


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