When Stephen King writes a blurb for a novel, readers take notice. When a book is reviewed in the New York Times Book Review section, readers take notice. Let’s look at how Elizabeth Brundage’s fourth novel, All Things Cease to Appear, which was published in 2016, is being received by the reading public.
All Things has earned over 7,000 ratings and 1,000 reviews on Goodreads. That is very good, yet the book scores only 3.72 (out of 5)––not what one might expect. On Amazon, it does a little better with a 4.1 score, but from only 300 reviews.
What are the chief objections to the novel among Amazon and Goodreads reviewers? First, and least important in my opinion, is that she does away with quotation marks. Some people find that disconcerting. I do not, as this is not the first novel I’ve read where the author does that. With only a couple of exceptions I was able to distinguish when someone was speaking out loud and when they were thinking to themselves without having to re-read a sentence.
The second most frequent criticism focused on the ending. I agree that Brundage did not tie up all the loose ends and in fact created a few that I felt were unnecessary, such as the divorce of the detective investing the murder that drives the story. I also was not entirely thrilled with how she handled the demise of the book’s antagonist, George Clare. I would have liked to see justice of another sort. It’s not that I believe evil people always get their just deserts, but in this case there was enough collateral damage that might have come home to roost. Then she preserves for twenty-five years important family possessions––letters and photos––in the house where the murder took place despite the fact that it had been rented from time to time. More about the ending below.
Another factor that may have hurt the novel’s ratings is the publisher’s insistence in calling it a literary thriller. I write thrillers and this shouldn’t be confused with the works in that genre. It doesn’t possess the structure of a thriller although she includes some elements, such as the impact a deranged individual has on a community, that are true of thrillers.
Attempting perhaps to attract readers by labeling All Things a thriller may have earned the book extra sales, but it also disappointed readers who know their thrillers.
Some readers also felt the story was slow to develop; others thought it bogged down in the middle. Here’s my take.
Brundage is all about characters. What happens is secondary. Murders occur all the time, but what she cares about are the people involved in this one. How did someone reach the point where he was capable of murder? What was the victim’s role in her demise? How did people view the perpetrator and the victim before the murder? How did the murder affect the community?
To tell a story that is unique, that gives us insights into our world, Brundage must get to know her characters intimately, then reveal them to us by following them through their daily lives and portraying the circumstances that lead inevitably to conflict. This cannot be rushed. We need to see these people in their environment, how they interact with the natural world, with the institutions of society, and with each other. She wants us to see not just the primary characters—the murderer and his victim, but others whose lives they touched. She has to do so in part to make us believe in these characters, to believe they are capable of what they do and don’t do, and in this she succeeds.
Having accomplished her goal, however, she must also resolve the story or readers will end up throwing their copies in the fireplace. Her ending, which I’m not going to describe, is creative, but it must be done in a way that is consistent with the author’s outlook. Hence the loose ends and the poetic, but not totally just, demise of the antagonist and the tying together of the two characters who can be labeled good people.
Novels like this one cannot be written during NoNoWriMo (November Novel Writing Month). It must take a lot out of a writer to write about a good person being murdered by her husband, a man who skillfully pretends to be someone he’s not. One doesn’t do this for fun. Nor can we say this kind of novel has lessons about life to teach us. Just the opposite since the emphasis is on the uniqueness of these characters at this time in this environment.
In a recent interview, Brundage was quoted as saying “my work tends to unravel some sort of mysterious knot.” In All Things she succeeds in unraveling who the murderer was at heart and how circumstances led him to kill two people and maim a third. I would give her 5 stars for the skill at which she accomplishes that task and for keeping me involved in the story to the final page. In Brundage’s case how we label her books is less important than the pleasure we get from reading them.
In a review I wrote in 2013 of Brundage’s three earlier novels, I concluded, “There’s much to praise in these novels. Even where she comes up short, Brundage pushes the boundaries of modern culture, asking her characters to confront the implications of their decisions and behavior. Few writers achieve those heights. Let’s see who she goes after next.” I feel Brundage has evolved in a positive direction, moving away from an issues agenda to portraying characters lives in such depth that we not only feel we know them, but accept their behavior as inevitable. Let’s see who she dissects next.