When Betty Gardiner dies, leaving behind an unkempt country home, her grandson and his young wife take a break from city life to prepare the house for sale. Nowell Gardiner leaves first to begin work on his second mystery novel. By the time Vivian joins him, a real mystery has begun: a local girl has been found dead in the woods behind the house . . . As Vivian attempts to put the house in order, all around her things begin to fall apart.
It’s understandable if this plot synopsis leads you to believe that The Qualities of Wood is a page-turner. When I started reading Mary Vensel White’s debut novel, that’s what I thought it was going to be. Suspense and tension develop after a body is found Nowell and Vivian’s land. The local people are peculiar and secretive, especially Mr. Stokes, the nearest neighbor, who lives “a half-mile to the west, deep in the trees”. Nowell’s ne’er-do-well brother arrives for an extended visit, bringing his new wife — and a frightening hint of violence.
Nowell himself acts strangely, hiding in his airless study and refusing to spend time with his wife. Is he just a temperamental writer, or does his behavior signal something more ominous? Vivian expresses surprise that “a sensitive, easy-going person like Nowell could write about deranged people and horrific events”, but to the reader, he seems far from “sensitive” and “easy-going”.
White skillfully creates a sense of foreboding in the early pages of the novel. Immediately after arriving at the country house, Vivian notices a light in the woods: “‘Someone’s back there’,” she tells Nowell, who shows a curious lack of concern about the sheriff’s investigation. The woods are a source of fascination to Vivian. When she refers to the wooded area behind her new home as a “forest”, Nowell laughs and says, “‘I never thought of it as a forest . . . I just think of forests being vast, you know, near mountain ranges. Not a small parcel beside some meager hill in the flatlands.'”
It becomes clear that big secrets can hide in “small parcels” of woods and in small towns — and in marriages and families. Maybe, Vivian wonders, secrets are important — and even necessary:
There were things Vivian didn’t understand about her husband, like his craving for privacy and his occasional secrecy . . . Besides, she had her own secrets. Whenever she began resenting Nowell’s guardedness, she thought about how it comforted her to think of her own private self, , buffeted and protected and perhaps mostly unknown even to herself. If Nowell told her everything about himself, what would that leave to discover, to talk about?
Although The Qualities of Wood is carefully constructed, it’s not a plot-driven novel. It’s a character study of Vivian, and her relationships: with her enigmatic husband and his family, and with her own parents. How much can we — and should we — know about the people we love? Gradually, the reader recognizes that there will be no dramatic plot twists. This isn’t a conventional suspense novel; readers who are expecting one may be disappointed by the book’s measured pace. But readers who are more interested in character development and setting will appreciate the artistry of The Qualities of Wood.
It’s obvious that wood is significant in this novel — both wood as a material and “the woods” as a place. One of Vivian’s most vivid childhood memories is being lost in the woods. Vivian and her parents spent a summer in a log cabin at a writers’ colony, “surrounded by trees”. One day Vivian intentionally wanders away, panicking when darkness begins to fall and she cannot find her way back. When she arrives at a house, a man smoking a “marbled-wood pipe” invites her to come inside. The reader feels a sense of dread, but it turns out that the stranger is kind and helpful, offering her a snack and returning her to her parents. Like so many events in this novel, the outcome is so ordinary that it’s unexpected.
When Vivian speaks with the sheriff who has found the dead girl in the woods, she recalls the terror she felt as a child when she realized she was lost. The woods continue to frighten her, but she is also drawn to their mystery. She’s also fascinated with Mr. Stokes, who lives in the woods and frequently wields an axe. “‘How much wood does one person need?” she asks him. ‘Don’t you worry about depleting your supply of trees?'” She sees that the woods can hide secrets, but they also provide shelter and comfort.
What are “the qualities of wood”?
Vivian remembered staring at her desktop in grammar school . . . and noticing the variety within the wood, the scant pencil remains from the students before her, the distinct markings of the grain. Like a fingerprint, each section unique to itself and to the seer. Eyes can become discerning, she thought, if you look long enough. The sky, the qualities of wood.
Wood appears in many forms in the novel — the trees behind the house, the stumps and logs in Mr. Stokes’s yard, the old furniture Vivian sells at her yard sale, the lumber that Nowell’s grandfather cut to build his house, even the paper used to print Nowell’s novels. It’s a metaphor for many things, but most of all for change and growth. In a few short weeks, Vivian learns many things about herself and her marriage.
Also, if you happen to live in southern California, you can meet the author at Barnes & Noble in Irvine on June 17 at 7:00 p.m. and Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena on June 21 at 4:00 p.m.