Monday, June 7, 2010

The Seduction of Water: metaphor alert!

The library book group will discuss Carol Goodman's The Seduction of Water (2003) tonight, June 8 at 7:30 pm.

PLOT/STYLE/GENRE: Narrated in the first-person, present-tense in an unemotional, declarative style, the book is a romance/mystery/family saga with threads of Celtic myths and imagery throughout. The story begins when the narrator, Iris, a struggling author, rewrites the Selkie myth as her mother used to tell it to her. Iris' piece is accepted in a literary journal and this success leads to her decision to explore the decades old mystery of her mother's disappearance and death. Iris returns for the summer to the Catskill Mountain hotel of her upbringing to work as hotel manager, as her father had, and to research her mother's life.
The Seduction of Water has enough plots, coincidences, meaningful imagery, foreshadowing, Gothic atmosphere and tortured characters to fit several books and all these pieces are tidied up in a lengthy denouement back at the big old spooky hotel in the tinder-dry woods.
FIRE METAPHOR decoded: (plot spoiler alert) Because the summer drought and water shortage are mentioned with great regularity, as well as the horror of hotel fires in general and the one that killed her mother in particular, it is no surprise to most readers that the hotel burns down in the end. Just as the seals/selkies are transformed by water leaving their seal skins behind to wander as homesick leggy mortals on land, Iris and her lover, horribly burned in the fire, presumably survive - transformed by their fiery love, but we don't actually get to see how that plays out. It's a dangling metaphor. The metaphor of fire as transformative (as in the legend of the Phoenix) seemed like a poor fit to the story because while fire destroyed buildings and people, there was no evidence of resurrection.
WATER METAPHOR explained: As for the metaphor of water, specifically the Hudson River, water figured in the following plot points. The Hudson changes (transforms!) from salt to fresh water at Ossining, NY., the site of Sing Sing Prison (true). In the book, the train stop and prison are called Rip Van Winkle, a nod to local author Washington Irving's tales. Iris teaches at the prison overlooking the river. Some prisoners are transformed by her class. One prisoner falls in love with her. He is transformed by her love. Iris mother changed trains there on her way to a transformed life in the Catskills and as we learn, changed identities at that pivotal point in the river - JUST LIKE A SELKIE, the creatures she writes about in her unfinished fantasy trilogy. Iris' mother, like the Selkies, can never go back home, but when she does, she burns up in a hotel fire during a dry summer. Metaphor collision alert! see also the Onion article: Author to Use Water as Metaphor for further clarification.

MOTHER/DAUGHTER THEME:No wait, that's what happens to her daughter too. Iris is gravely burned in a metaphor collision. Did I mention that the book is about mothers and daughters and that there is another mother/daughter mystery that parallels Iris' search for her past? And that character's name sounds like Phoenix. nudge, nudge, wink, wink. I refer to the character Phoebe Nix.

ART HISTORY MYSTERY: But wait, that's not all, there's a mysterious hidden necklace, looted during World War II, which Iris' mother writes into her book as a Selkie necklace* (Ringed Seals have necklace-like markings) and by remarkable coincidence a necklace art historian comes to the hotel to lecture about lost necklaces. Or was it a coincidence? (Cue spooky music) And guess what Iris finds in her childhood bed headboard at the end just before she almost burns to death? A Selkie! No, seriously, a necklace and the third book in her mother's fantasy trilogy which actually is not part three, but her mother's memoir. But don't get your hopes up, the third book is transformed in the fire into a pile of ashes, so Iris will never, ever read her mother's memoir, but that's ok because she figured out most of her mother's story by her dogged research, aided by remarkable serendipity.

Cranky Review Disclaimer: The Seduction of Water is a popular well-reviewed book. Whereas I'm just a cranky literalist who fights fantasy tooth and claw and likes books to decide on one or two themes/genres and stick with it, so consider the source when reading my take on this work. Reviewers should review the book as it is, not as they wish it was, I was told at a book review workshop. If you like chick-lit, gothic tales and fantasy all rolled into one book, you will probably enjoy The Seduction of Water. If you don't require metaphors to fit the plot as tight as a Rubik's Cube, you are safe from metaphor exhaustion. If coincidence broad enough to span the Hudson doesn't bother you and you don't mind being hit over the head with forshadowing, you are good to go with this book.

The author's website has plot descriptions, author biographical information and interviews which can be viewed at

For reviews, take a look at the Book Reporter website.

The reviews of this book are almost uniformly favorable, although most note that Goodman's earlier book, the Lake of Dead Languages was similar, but better.

*The necklace theme in the book is a conflation of Iris' mother's string of pearls, the Selkies crown and a Renaissance ferroniere, which is a jeweled headband.

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