by Tricia Dower
Leapfrog Press, 2016
Reviewed by Clifford Garstang
Part coming of age tale, part crime drama, part psychological thriller, Tricia Dower’s Stony River is one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Set during the late 1950s in a small New Jersey town, the novel tells the stories of three girls from three very different families whose lives become intertwined in unexpected ways. Linda, from a suffocatingly strict home with a hard-working father and a neurotic mother, is unpopular at school and struggles with her weight. When Tereza moves into an apartment across the street with her abusive mother and stepfather, the girls begin spending time with each other, despite being very different. Whereas Linda is timid and inexperienced with boys, Tereza, small and beautiful and extroverted, uses sex to earn the money and attention she doesn’t get at home. During one of their secret outings together, the girls witness the police entering an old house and exiting with a girl about their age and a toddler in custody. This girl is Miranda, who is in some ways the most stable of the three girls, even though she’s been kept a virtual prisoner in her house by her father, who is also the father of her child.
As Dower unfolds her story, we see that all three girls, products of their respective unhealthy environments, are intent on finding refuge. Lonely Linda finds solace in junk food. Tereza runs away from her family with hopes of becoming an actress and ends up married to a moody and unhinged devotee of Charles Atlas. Miranda, after her father’s death, is first comforted by the Catholic Church, but later resorts to her father’s mysterious healing practices, work that restores her connection to the spirits of both her deceased parents and their Irish homeland.
Meanwhile, the town of Stony River suffers from a series of unsolved crimes—a cop killing, a young woman murdered, another kidnapped, several attempted abductions. All three of the girls may have information that will help police find the killers. All three are reluctant to tell what they know.
Ultimately, the novel is about a time and place that wasn’t as innocent as we remember. Perhaps Linda’s mother is not so wrong to confine her daughter and to shield her from the influence of girls like Tereza. Or, at the other extreme, is the freedom Tereza’s mother allows the right approach to raising a child? And what of Miranda’s father, who taught her reverence for both books and the traditional ways of his heritage, but also used that heritage as an excuse to impregnate her.
As the novel races to a climax, it’s hard to know where to place one’s sympathies. The reader wants all these girls to be safe, to find the refuge they crave, but it’s ultimately not clear that this is possible, in the novel or in real life.