Last week I read two books in two days.
Yes, that required putting a halt to all activities beyond eating and feeding the dog. Even sleep was limited.
To my surprise, the two books revolved around the consequences of a common theme: Profiting—or not—from involvement in murder.
And the two books shared a common setting in two nearby states: Geography so big it becomes a character, in vast terrain of mountains and wilderness.
The Painter by Peter Heller (2014)
You may have never committed a crime of passion in a fury at the act of a bully beating a horse, but you may identify with the emotions such an act stirs. You may have never cast a line in search of a big brown, and you may have never painted a smear of cobalt blue with a flat brush on a canvas, but you may well be caught up in the reverie of The Painter.
The Painter is told by the protagonist in an insistent whispering-in-your-ear first person viewpoint, set in northern New Mexico, and captivating to anyone who knows and loves the geography—the mountains, the streams and the light there.
If you are an angler and love any words on a page describing the art and stealth of hooking a big trout and then releasing it back to its stream (I never did understand why fly fishers think catch-and-release is somehow more humane than catch-and-pan-fry), you may like The Painter. I skimmed a lot here.
If you are a painter and understand what it’s like to be so taken by the flow of paint on canvas for hours that you lose all sense of yourself, you may like The Painter. To me, those sections were among the real, and easily the most enchanting.
If you enjoy a suspense story well-told by a somewhat unreliable narrator in first person where the whodunits are a mystery only to the rest of the cast in the book, you may like The Painter. I liked knowing the narrator’s secrets.
If you are captivated by voice, prose and style despite lagging momentum, and are disappointed when an ending delivers little, you may like The Painter. When it moved, this plot moved. But it plodded a lot, too.
Big Questions Posed by The Painter:
- Should a Santa Fe art gallery owner be able to double a painter’s prices when he becomes “a person of interest” in two murders, and his violent past is resurrected?
- Why are The Painter‘s collectors and patrons fawning over a man under investigation for two murders?
- Will The Painter ever be able to release his buried rage over his teenage daughter’s murder in a non-criminal way?
- Why do all male protagonists who are larger than life have several different amazing women at their beck and call at all times?
- Is The Painter‘s sex and love life a tale only a male author could plausibly write—and believe in?
After Her by Joyce Maynard (2013)
You may understand how children can give a pass to one parent, and expect the world from the other, because you’ve been a child yourself. In After Her, two sisters (ages 11 and 13) expect little and get even less from their depressed, uninvolved mother while they worship their oft-absent divorced father as a hero for his crime-solving ability and the rare authentically-Italian meals he cooks for them.
As a result, the two sisters get in a lot of trouble. Cleverly. Their imaginations are unbounded and their fear of a serial killer stalking the Mount Tamalpais trails behind their Marin County, California home is negligible.
If you enjoy untangling the mystery of how one parent becomes a favorite despite his absence, and why the other one is blamed though she’s always there, you may like After Her. I’m fond of pondering this theme even when I’m not reading about it.
If you are drawn to true-crime thrillers based on events like serial killings, in the guise of family drama and teens coming-of-age, filtered by their characters’ misguided intentions and unintended consequences, you may like After Her. I avoided the prose describing the murdered victims, and focused on the underlying drama of the characters.
If you enjoy stories of lower-class suburban childhood set in the late 1970s amidst serial killings in the Muir Woods’ stunning mountainous splendor, you may like After Her. I’m a sucker for time travel to an era in my past.
If you loved the song, My Sharona, you may love After Her. I was never that crazy about it, and now it’s stuck on a repeat loop in my head.
If you resonate to tales told in hindsight, three decades later, by an adult narrator trying to make sense of inexplicable childhood events, with a messy wrap-up explaining her misunderstood teenage conclusions, you may like After Her. I rushed through the final info dump the narrator used to tie up the loose ends; she told it fast, so I read it fast.
Big Questions Posed by After Her:
- Why do the two sisters yearn for their father’s attention but care so little about their mother’s unwillingness to provide it?
- Would two young sisters really attempt to lure a serial killer out in the wilderness and be so fearless about it, even if they’re desperate to assist their detective dad?
- Do police investigators always disregard teenagers as fanciful girls, and avoid searching the scene for evidence, when an elusive killer is on the loose?
- Was the Trailside Killer (the real serial killer that inspired After Her) ever found and convicted?
- Is it plausible to be so obsessed with a childhood event that your adult life is compromised as you hunt down answers?
- Should we deny our children access to television today, in order to stimulate their imaginations and creative storytelling skills?
Have you read The Painter or After Her? What are your thoughts?
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