- The Washington Times - Friday, April 9, 2010

SINS OF EDEN

By Chris Bohjalian

Shaye Areheart Books, $25, 370 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

One tends to trust a likable narrator. One shouldn’t, not all the time anyway and certainly not in the case of Stephen Drew, whose first-person account opens this compelling novel. But, heck, he’s a minister, a reverend, a clergyman. And he’s definitely likable, at least at the beginning. Some days you just don’t know whom to trust.

Drew is a Baptist minister in Haverill, an of-course-picturesque little town in Vermont. (If there are any ugly little towns in Vermont, novelists shun them.) He’s in his 40s, unmarried but definitely not gay, as we soon learn. The book opens with him thinking un-Christian thoughts about his congregation, noting that the concerns of those asking for prayers are decidedly minor: “It would seem that the only persons rising up in their pews to speak needed Prozac considerably more than they needed prayer. Or yes, than they needed me.”

Soon he has thoughts of a very different nature, for after the service he baptizes, by full immersion in an of-course-picturesque little pond, the of-course-lovely Alice Hayward. Normally, the souls the Rev. Drew baptizes choose to have it done simply, indoors, but Alice Hayward wants the full Monty, total immersion in a pond outdoors with witnesses gathered around, including her 15-year-old daughter, Katie, her best friend, Ginny, and various other church ladies, but not her husband, George.

We soon learn several things of importance. One, Stephen is losing his faith, a bad thing for a minister; two, Alice is a battered wife who is deathly afraid of her abusive husband; and three, Alice Hayward has been wayward (thus the name, perhaps), with, of all people, the Rev. Stephen Drew.

George Hayward, successful local businessman, was not at his wife’s baptism because he disapproves of such public events, and would not have countenanced her receiving the sacrament wearing a Speedo under a long T-shirt. For years, he has been insisting she hide her light (and other things) under a bushel, even dictated what clothes are right, i.e. not revealing, for both his wife and his daughter to wear. And, also for years, he has been using his wife as a punching bag.

On the Sunday night after Alice’s baptism, a drunken George goes too far, and, as she rakes his face with her fingernails, he chokes her to death. Then he sits down and shoots himself in the head with a handgun. The daughter, who is at a concert, is to spend the night with her friend Tina, so the dead bodies of her parents aren’t discovered until the next morning.

Stephen, apparently as shocked as anyone, helps clean up the bloody brain-and-bone-spattered mess in the Haywards’ living room. The police, concluding it was a murder-suicide, are inclined to close the case. But something about the principals - and the crime scene - make Deputy State’s Attorney General Catherine Benincasa suspicious, and she decides to go the extra mile.

At this point, Chris Bohjalian, the author of 11 previous novels (who leapt to fame when the mighty Oprah anointed his 1998 book “Midwives” as her book club selection), appears to have the stage set very neatly. But he’s not done. Enter Heather Laurent, author of two highly successful books about angels. A visionary to some, like Alice’s friend Ginny, but a New Age whack job to others, young Heather is also of-course-lovely.

On the Tuesday after the Sunday night killings, Ms. Laurent, in the area to promote her latest book and to give a lecture, shows up at the door of the Rev. Drew. Even though he’s in the relig. biz, Stephen has never heard of her or her angel books, but he knows an opportunity when it knocks on his door. He doesn’t salivate on the spot, but he invites her into his house.

Heather explains that she saw his picture in the local paper and was bothered by his “aura,” it being out of balance or focus or something. And then Heather explains that when she was about the same age as Katie Hayward, her father killed her mother and then himself.

When Ms. Benincasa, for whom the author has written the clunkiest dialogue I’ve read in a long time (proving once again that men shouldn’t try to make women sound like men just because they have jobs that used to be held only by the unfair sex), decides to contact Stephen, she learns he has resigned his ministry, left town and is out of cell-phone range in a cabin in the woods with Heather Laurent.

Now the picture shifts and it is clear that Stephen is the prime suspect, on the theory that when he visited the Hayward house on the fatal night, he found Alice dead and George passed out drunk, and in his grief arranged George’s “suicide.” While the reader contemplates this possibility, the author shifts the point of view to that of the deputy state’s attorney, Ms. Benincasa, then Heather Laurent and, finally, the newly orphaned Katie Hayward. By the time we get to Katie, it seems that while the authorities know Stephen did it - or maybe that’s what we’re supposed to think - they may not be able to prove it.

Thusly we march to the end, with what struck me as a curious lack of suspense for a thriller. The author keeps the reveal until the very end, and we do learn who did in the brutish George Hayward. But I’m reporting, not bragging, when I say I saw the ending coming quite a ways back.

Mr. Bohjalian is a good writer. At first I thought this was a mainstream novel, not a thriller or a whodunit, because the author is a fine observer of human nature with solid narrative skills and a subtle sense of humor. Also, with the exception of George and the deputy state’s attorney, the characters are well-drawn and credible. But the closer I got to the end the more air went out of the bag. Color me disappointed.

One more thing. Immediately after the novel’s last page, we encounter a six-page “Reading Group Guide.” I’ve seen this kind of thing before, but only as a part of the promotional package supplied by the publisher, never part of the book itself. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think most book club members are able to come up with their own questions. I wonder what the sarcastic Stephen Drew, oh he of little faith, would have had to say about that.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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