A haunting, luminous debut novel set in a small New Hampshire the story of the crisscrossing of lives, within and without family, and of one woman, given up for adoption as a baby, searching for the truth about her life.
As an infant, Alice Thorton was discovered in Kettleborough, New Hampshire, in a boathouse by the lake; adopted by a young, childless couple; raised with no knowledge of the women who came before Eleonora, who brought her family to Bear Island, the nearly uninhabitable scrap of land in Kettleborough’s lake; Signe, the maiden aunt who nearly drowned in the lake, ashamed of her heart; Sophie, the grandmother who turned a blind eye to her unwanted granddaughter. Alice grows up aching for an acceptance she can’t quite imagine, trying to find it first with an older man, then with one who can’t love her back, and finally in the love she feels for one she has never met. And all the while she feels a mysterious pull to the lake. As Alice edges ever closer to her past, Lake People beautifully evokes the interweaving of family history and individual fate, and the intangible connections we feel to the place where we were born.
It has been a long time since I have read a novel by a new author whose book moved me as much as Abi Maxwell's Lake People. The only reason I read it is because we are reading together in a bookstore next month. (This is troubling because I would have needed to have gone to a well stocked bookstore or library and browsed, and who knows if I would have took it home to read?) It is a very, very good book. It seems every word is weighed, considered, and selected to tell a story of multiple generations connected to a near mystical lake and island. Mythology abounds, and the magical realist aspects are dreamy, neary hallucinatory. The writing is clear, like water, like the sound of a bell. I recommend it very highly. Please read and be transported.
My husband and I lived for three glorious years in New Hampshire. We spent our weekends driving throughout the beautiful state and marveling at its splendor. Being outsiders, we sometimes laughed as we passed a beautiful mansion in the woods only to discover that the next residence was a trailer with a micro bus welded to the side for an extra room. Just like New Hampshire is full idiosyncratic features, Lake People by Abi Maxwell is an unusual, delightful and peculiar novel.
Maxwell writes a stunning novel that often reads as a collection of short stories about the same person. Some of the stories could be fleshed out to inhabit entire novels. The characters are so real and unique that the novel often feels like a memoir--surely these people, so well described and so interesting, really exist.
Alice Thornton grows up in Kettleborough, New Hampshire with her father on the banks of a lake, knowing so little of her own life. Over time, pieces fall together and Alice learns that she is connected with the town, the lake, Bear Island and the legends of the eccentric woman who once inhabited the island generations ago. While finding herself, Alice finds peace and love and the desire to live.
Quirky and unexpectedly, Lake People was an engaging read.
This was a strange book through and through. Parts engaged me deeply, other bits and I floated off. I liked it well enough. It is certainly different. It was broken in a way too because of the stories within the story... I am still absorbing this one. I particularly liked the aunt that floated in the lake, which I don't want to write of in detail because it would gave away her story.
My review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/10vnkcj
Growing up in the Midwest (in Medina, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland), I always held an exaggerated view of life on the East Coast. Which means I considered all of New England to be a a wide-lawned suburb of New York City, full of liberal-mided folks who descended from rich landowners that came over on the Mayflower. I could go on describing this dream New England, but you probably get the picture. When I went off to college at a small liberal arts school in the Southwest, the student body was largely populated by the offspring of just this kind of East Coaster. Trustafarians, I called them. And so, my ideas about the East Coast stuck. In my imagination, New Hampshire and Connecticut are one and the same, and so are Boston, D.C., New York.
But of course I know better than that now. A few years ago I rode my bicycle from Bar Harbor, Maine down part of the East Coast. On that trip, I spent several days biking through New Hampshire, and I can tell you its a strange kind of place. Let's put it this way: The state might be peopled by the descendants of pilgrims, but more of them are living in trailers than you might think. More sleeveless t-shirts, too. More tattered American flags and more Gadsen flags (the one featuring the coiled rattlesnake and the words "Don't Tread on Me") than you might expect to find in a state populated by "Liberal Elites." New Hampshire's motto is Live Free or Die, and a good number of the state's residents take this idea to heart. What sticks out for me after visiting the state isn't its overwhelming beauty, but rather the shocking poverty and sense of rugged independence that permeates everything there. Its spirit is a lot closer to rural Montana or Iowa than New York City. I've visited every state in America, most of them by bicycle, and nowhere else was what I found so different from what I had expected.
In other words, New Hampshire must be a strange place to grow up. Abi Maxwell, a New Hampshire native, sets her debut novel Lake People in the state. It's certainly a rich enough place to locate a setting-driven novel.
Lake People begins with the image of our heroine Alice Thorton as a newborn baby, floating abandoned "in an old canoe on the big lake." It's the kind of mysterious opening that might strain believability, but it also tells us what kind of story this one will be--that is, the kind where newborn babies might be placed in canoes in lakes, and one in which this is the kind of thing that people might actually do. We also understand that this novel will be concerned--at least in part--with telling us who exactly this baby is and how she got into a canoe.
Alas, in the very next paragraph, Ms. Maxwell takes a step back. The canoe, she tells us, "wasn't floating freely. It was tied up in the boathouse where I would be found, just east of Kettleborough pier." The decision to dial back on the opening image is a puzzling one--sure, putting a child in peril in the opening scene is a borderline lazy way of building suspense, but reducing the child's peril by introducing new information drains all the energy out of the scene.
It isn't long after that first scene that Ms. Maxwell has answered all the questions we had about baby Alice. She is the daughter of Jennifer Hill and Karl Wickholm, two Kettleborough teenagers. Just before Alice is found in the lake, Karl is found dead. Jennifer runs away from home and is never seen again. It's framed in the novel as a kind of a scandalous star-crossed love affair, because the Hills and the Wickholms come from opposite sides of the tracks in Kettleborough. Essentially, the Hills are those "Don't Tread on Me," sleeveless t-shirt wearing, beat-up-trailer living, "Live Free or Die," New Hampshire-ites that I saw so many of on my bike trip. The Wickholms are the kind of New Englanders who send their offspring to tiny liberal arts colleges in the Southwest. Certainly there is an interesting story to be told about these class divisions, but when Ms. Maxwell gets bogged down in these details the story grinds to a halt.
The reason the story stalls is that it's too confusing. The proud (read: rich) Wickholms live a big house with a water view. The only thing blocking their view is a stand of pine trees owned by a woman who is a friend of the Hills, whom we are clearly meant to believe belongs to their socioeconomic class (i.e., poor). Huh? Not sure how it is in the lakes region of New Hampshire, but in every other waterfront community I have visited the people with the money live on the shore. Also, Ms. Maxwell tells us that Alice's great-great grandparents were immigrants who were so penniless that they settled on an uninhabited island and built their own cabin. Then Alice's grandmother dies, and her mother is raised by a lesbian aunt (although Ms. Maxwell somewhat uncomfortably refers to her as a gay woman--"I had failed to understand that she herself was a gay woman"). The aunt is not rich. So the method by which the Wickholms rose in one generation to such a high economic status is unclear. Alice's grandmother Sofie is married to a gentle Swede named Otto who owns a store in town, from which he makes and sells his own ice cream. So it turns out that the ivory tower the Wickholms look down at the Hills from is actually made of vanilla.
Unfortunately, the confusion doesn't end there. As a novel, the driving force of Lake People is the question of Alice's origins. The problem is that those origins (that she is the product of the aforementioned star-crossed love affair) are clear to the reader very early on in the story. The rest of the novel is taken up by Alice trying to figure it out for herself. There are no surprises along the way. The problem with setting up a plot in which the reader knows everything that Alice is trying to find out is obvious: The longer it takes Alice to piece it all together, the stupider we think she is. By the time Alice moves away to the hill country (where she lives in poverty with a man who doesn't love her, then marries him in a courthouse, right after he tells her again that he doesn't love her, then is shocked and depressed that he doesn't love her), we're beginning to think she might not be the sharpest tool in the shed.
In the hill country, Alice happens to meet a woman named Martha Hill, who I believe would be her second or third cousin. When Martha tells Alice that she knows a secret about her, Alice doesn't seem too interested in knowing what it is ("Alice shrugged," Ms. Maxwell writes). Instead, Alice seems more interested in conveying how poor and backward Martha is compared to her. You see, Martha belongs to a lower class than Alice, the Hills vs. the Wickholms all over again, and Ms. Maxwell won't let us forget it. Martha lives in a ramshackle house "built so sloppily it looked like a house of playing cards that would surely blow over in the wind." But again I was confused by this. For one thing, Alice at that point in the story doesn't know she is a Wickholm--in fact, she's been raised by an alcoholic single step-father--so why is she so judgmental of Martha? In the hills a hundred miles away from the lake, they still live right down the street from one another. Their husbands work at the same factory. Alice's husband beats her. Alice has a broken down car. Why does she feel her status is so much higher than Martha's?
Later, Alice reads the following passage in Martha's journal: "God forgive me for writing it down. Us Hills and them Wickholms have a secret child from my dissapeared cousin Jennifer Hill and their dead son....Alice, the secret is you!" And Alice still doesn't get it. She's got to go back to Kettleborough, go to the library, spend time on the microfiche, etc. It takes her almost another hundred pages to finally connect the dots.
I think Ms. Maxwell senses that her plotting isn't cutting it, and so she attempts to add gravitas to her novel in other ways. Perhaps ten or twenty people drown in the lake during the course of the book. Many of them are Alice's ancestors. Alice is raped by an older man. Alice has a random sexual encounter. Alice witnesses an accidental death that she is forced to cover up. Baby Alice is a passenger in a van that falls off a cliff. There's also the aforementioned single alcoholic father, and the husband who physically and emotionally abuses her. And that's only Alice. Countless other tragedies befall the other characters in the book. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a little blood and guts, but there are so many tragedies here, all with no plot to pull us through or a single character we really care about, that the tragedies themselves are like a drumbeat behind the story. Toward the end of the book, when Ms. Maxwell's well has apparently run dry, Alice repeatedly contemplates suicide. I just don't have the patience for that kind of thing.
Ms. Maxwell also tries to compensate for her plotting with elegant sentence construction, but the tone seemed too self conscious and effortful to me. "My mother was named Ida and she followed a call that led her out upon the frozen lake and by that lake she was swallowed. Those tall rocks that stand in our lake today rose up immediately after she fell within."
On its own the writing is nice, but in conjunction with all these other shortcomings it makes me suspicious. And that's the bottom line--nothing about this little book was too offensive, but the little flaws added up so relentlessly that they became overwhelming. Part of the reason for this might have been that the beginning of the book demands a close read, because each of the chapters are told from a different point of view but lack the chapter headings a book like this would commonly have (e.g. "Sophie," "Signe," "Alice"), and it's difficult to decipher who's speaking.
I wouldn't have judged this book nearly so harshly had it been presented as a book of stories. To present it that way instead of as a novel would have negated the need for a plot connecting the stories, just as it would have negated the need for common themes and chapter headings. If those things hadn't tripped me up, then I might not have found the language and the catalogue of tragedies so grating.
All of that being said, it's undeniable that Abi Maxwell is a talented young writer, who has found a wonderful setting for her fiction. A few chapters of this book function very well as self contained stories, particularly "Lake People" and "The Old Factory." Lake People is worth the read as a short story collection, but won't be rewarding for those who try to make sense of it as a novel.
Lake People was written beautifully. The character's stories were well interwoven. The lake had this enchanting quality about it. It wasn't confusing or scattered as I had gone in expecting it to be. Alice's childhood was the only thing that dipped my interest, and even that was because it had taken a turn that I wasn't expecting. I also wasn't sure if it was going to be how the story continued. But everything wrapped up right back where I wanted to see the story go. And I'm excited to see what Abi Maxwell writes next.
This book really failed to capture my interest. If it was any longer than its brief 210 pages, I would not have finished it. It was just dull and the chapters were so disconnected from each other that the book never had a smooth flow or rhythm to it. Perhaps if the chapters were richer in detail they could stand on their own as short stories, but as they were, each one felt more like a muted vignette. Though the setting played perhaps the largest role in the “novel” none of the chapters felt fully rooted in this unique location. Without the year heading each chapter, the time period would be basically indistinguishable. There really was an opportunity here to make at least that part of the story come to life, but unfortunately, 1910 had much in common with the scenes set in 1994.
The premise at the heart of the novel - an adopted woman finding her biological roots - was certainly one that caught my attention, but the mystery never included the reader. The lack of flow between these chapters was further compounded with the oddly shifting perspective. There were chapters here from first-person, third-person and an oddly reflective third-person... It made it impossible to connect with any of the characters. It was a shame because some of the sentences were quite lovely and descriptive, but there weren’t enough of them consecutively to compensate for the massive inconsistencies between chapters.
Complicated yet interesting! This is a book that will take me some time to process. The storyline requires some patience because it follows multiple generations and skips around a bit, but it does so for good reason. Some parts left me feeling confused, and yet others seemed to have great, even if painful, insight into human behavior. If I were more spiritual and "believing" I think I would have enjoyed the book even more. I think I need to read tis book again to fully grasp the weight of it because I think I focused too much on figuring out the plot and didn't pay enough attention to the meaning. I picked this book up off a library bookshelf thinking that it would be a quick breezy summer read, but it is actually much, much deeper than that.
Lake People captures many aspects of New Hampshire perfectly for me - the undercurrent of class in friendships and interactions, the collective memory of a mourning small town, the magical thinking that comes with spending more time in nature than with other people, and the secrets that divide New England families.
Add to that beautiful writing, intriguing characters, and mysteries that you want resolved, and you have one of my favorite books ever.
I'm calling it. I'm almost 1/2 way through and I just can't bring myself to finish. I kept going back and forth with this book. Was it good/interesting weird, or was it just wtf weird? Well, it's why-the-face weird. The writing itself was good and I would probably read something else by this author.
I hate to rate a book with one star, and really I was torn between giving this one a single star or two. However, as much as I loved the writing style at times -- one particular description of air so cold that the character could cut squares of it out with scissors and put them in her pocket will definitely stick with me -- this book started coming apart at the seams fairly quickly. I was on board with the characters at first and enjoyed the story for maybe 30 pages, but over time and after too many changes of perspective (at times it took me a while to figure out who was talking), plot holes, jumps in time, and unexplained/explainable actions, I got annoyed with them. Death and love strike with little reason or aftermath, the main character(s?) seem to have no firm motivations, and it's difficult to tell if magic exists or if the characters are crazy (and not in the fun, thriller-type way). All that said, this is a first novel, and Maxwell's writing shows real promise. I see from the other reviews that she's written another book since, and I'll still give it a try.
I'm sorry to say, this book was a disappointment. It wasn't necessarily the story itself but the way it was written. I know each author has their own unique writing style and that's a great thing. You don't want to read different authors and have them all read the same - that'd be boring. Unfortunately, I am not a fan of Abi Maxwell's writing style.
While reading Lake People, there's one thought that kept running through my mind: "This is the weirdest book I've ever read." I'm sorry, Ms. Maxwell, but I'm giving your book 2 stars and that's only because, at the very end of the book, Alice found a bit of the happiness she was searching for. Thank goodness I only paid $1 for this book.
I liked Abi Maxwell's Booktopia book, The Den, so I thought I'd try her first book. This was way different and confusing. The plot involved a family who traveled to an island, but not everyone makes it. The lake claims some of the family. As subsequent generations try to adapt to the island, they, too, become one with the lake, but not all in the same way. Even though each chapter is named with the year(s) of the action, I often was confused about where and when we were in the story. The writing was good, but sometimes, I think her threads got tangled.
I think that this is one of those books that people either really like or really dislike. (It reminded me of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale.) I found it magical and almost mesmerizing, so much so that I couldn't put it down. Reading it in a concentrated period of time may be the key; I can see where it would be very confusing if you picked it up at random times. I found Maxwell's descriptions very good and I appreciated her sense of the lake's pull. (Maybe it helped to be looking out at the lake on which her unnamed lake is based as I read.)
I picked this up because I'm a big fan of multi-generational narration and also because I like the setting of lakes and New Hampshire. I have much appreciation for what Maxwell did with the intertwined narratives and the sequence of lives - the aging of the characters was handled really well. Less satisfying, though, was the setting. The lake almost felt magical, but not quite, and in the end the magical elements ended up just making the setting feel unreal.
I really wanted to like Lake People. It had elements that I usually enjoy: New Hampshire, a lake, history and a unique story. Unfortunately, it just didn’t all fit together. The story was confusing at times. I had to really think and reorient each time the setting changed. I picked the book up at a library book sale, which is where it has been returned. Hopefully, the next reader will enjoy it more than I did.
I wanted to like this book. The concept was so interesting, a child abandoned at birth....but the story had absolutely no depth. The main hardcovers just bumble around bumping into each other and no one ever does anything worthy of being in existence. Theres too many storyline threads that just confuse and muddle the water of the main idea. The story jumps around time so much half the time I wasn't even sure who's story I was following.
Sadly this is a book I just couldn't bring myself to finish. I tried to read it a whole 24 hours and still just dying of boredom. It's like you read and read hoping something would catch my eye or something would catch my interest and I understand this was the authors very first book but I just couldn't get into it. I was beyond bored with the story and characters.
loved the first 2/3, the last 1/3 was still lovely but not quite there. the whole thing was a little bit too loose and jumpy for me, you can really see the improvement between this and The Den, which I was enraptured by. I really hope Maxwell gets the chance to publish more books, both of them have such low readership and it's a crying shame because she writes beautifully <3
The time shifts and alternating perspectives provides the reader insight into different characters. The lake being the most mysterious of the characters. The symbolism is beautiful and allows the reader to relate to different characters.
Lots of stories, sadness and mystery surround a family and a found baby.
My thoughts after reading this book...
A family has an attachment and lots of mystical feelings about this lake that has provided them with way too much sorrow. There are all of these beliefs that people get drawn to and swallowed up by this lake...sometimes even when they don't want to...even when they take precautions...like the men who had a canoe and still drowned. Whew!
The book is divided into sections and eras and we learn and relive the history f this family and those connected to them. Especially important is Alice Thornton...the baby who was found in a canoe near the lake. Most of the story is about her and how she discovers who she is.
What I loved about this book...
I did enjoy the bits of history about this family...I loved the parts about Signe's life as a teacher and as a person who loved ordering things from catalogs...I loved the way she labeled her canned goods and ordered pheasant and truffles and other strange delights.
What I did not love...
I chose this book to read but I ultimately did not enjoy it. In my mind it rambled, the lake part was weird and I didn't connect with any character...I thought the most interesting character was Signe and all of her lost loves. I found nothing starkly wrong with this book. The author weaves a lovely story. I just didn't love it.
A tightly woven mysterious book about a rather odd family and a lake. Readers who love a sort of folklorish tale should really enjoy this.
Alice Thornton’s family history is filled with tormented women and a dark, inexplicable connection to the lake around desolate Bear Island in New Hampshire. Alice, abandoned at birth and adopted by a couple with troubles of their own, grows up unaware of her roots. Throughout her life, however, she never loses her sense of loss, and searching; she unwisely chooses one inappropriate lover after another, never quite finding what she hopes to. Only when Alice finally begins to discover the pieces of her past does her own search for love, acceptance, and happiness roar to life; and she will ultimately be drawn back to the lake that claimed so many of her ancestors.
With shifting points of view that take us from 1910 through 1994 and reveal the tumultuous paths of Alice’s aunt Signe, grandmother Sophie, adoptive mother Clara, and Alice herself, Lake People quietly and powerfully reveals the intensity of family connections, even among family we barely know; the pull of our homeland; and the impossibility of outrunning what, long ago, was slated to be our destiny.
*Review was originally written for the San Francisco Book Review. I received this book in exchange for an honest review.
Update: So it finally hits me as to what is disturbing and also fascinating about this book - the author takes no stand, makes no moral judgments, nor does she let any of her characters. This happened; that happened, and no more; almost clinical, with the odd sensation of going under anesthesia.
The Alice-Simon dynamic was too convenient and fanciful for my tastes. Simon was required to bring a happy ending and not much more that I could see. If Simon just lived across the lake in Kettleborough, why didn't he get in a boat and visit this woman he is falling in love with? This is a literary novel and therefore accorded the privilege of such lapses in logic, but geez...
The magical realism didn't grab me like I had hoped it would.
I liked the characters, especially the goofy, abused wife Martha. Yet, most of them are sad, far away, and utterly perplexed by life. They float into the story, then leave, but we're left with the impression that they are all still there, living and doing in Kettleborough, NH.
The author, Abi Maxwell, was born and raised in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. She is currently working as an assistant librarian at the Gilford Public Library. This is her first book.
Ms. Maxwell's work is most imaginative, a haunting novel expanding decades in a small town along the shore of Lake Winnepesaukee. The protagonist, Alice Thornton, was discovered in a boathouse as a baby and adopted by a childless couple. She was raised with no knowledge of where she came from or the women in her family who came before her and they were an interesting group. We follow Alice through various points in her life as she struggles to understand who she is and find love and acceptance. It must have been quite an undertaking for this author to weave the many characters and time periods together. It is the type of story that will always stay with one and makes me most anxious to explore Bear Island. Available at BGM Library in Rumney.
There were parts of this book that really captivated me and other sections I found myself a little bored. I literally just finished it, so I may have to come back and edit this later, but I am inclined to say there were too many characters. Then I lament that perhaps some of the characters just showed up at strange intervals and seemed like they were completely new to the story, but then it was revealed that they were intertwined in some way...maybe there was a little too much coincidence for me. I was a little disappointed in the fact that every one in town seemed to know Alice's story, save for her. I found that a little too much of a stretch, but otherwise the story really has potential and I am looking forward to hearing this author speak at the book store that hosts my book club later this month.
Lake People is a decent debut from a writer I hope we see more from, but let’s hope Abi Maxwell is able to exercise restraint in future efforts and find the elemental core in her stories beforehand. As it stands, her debut often feels like a writing exercise in fatalism, with one event trying its best to out-gloom the next. It’s telling that the further we get to the end, the stronger and more precise the events become, as if Maxwell began to realize where the real strengths of the story lay. The best being the fascinating, if unrealistic, star-crossed love-by-correspondence and the young girl destined to play her part in this cross-section of life. Maxwell may want to look into a short story collection in the future as she's clearly skilled in that area.
I forgot to mention I'd started this one. Last time we went to the library Ella wanted to choose a couple of books for me, as I'd done the same for her on our previous visit and she'd really enjoyed them.
Perhaps I was distracted when I read this book, but I found it confusing. The names and dates didn't stick with me so I found myself having to flick back in the early part of the book to understand who I was reading.
I felt that many characters were under developed, which frustrated me because the little parts I read of them got me very interested. The opening chapters, with Sophie and her husband, I didn't understand the tension between them and that seemed to set up everything that followed so I felt I was behind from the start.
I did enjoy it, but felt it could have been so much better.