A dedicated group of book club members braved the spring storm on Monday, April 4th to discuss There Was an Old Woman by Hallie Ephron – one of the three selections Chelmsford is reading as part of this year’s One Book Chelmsford‘s focus on suspense. It is a subtly suspenseful story of two women dealing with the past, Evie as part of her job as the antiquities specialist at the Five Boroughs Historical Society and the other, Mina as a 90 year old looking back on her life. Set in an imaginary but completely realized part of the Bronx, Ephron’s strong sense of place roots the novel and places the reader firmly in her world.
The suspense comes with the situations – Evie returns home to help with her alcoholic mother whose house has quickly and illogically devolved into a hovel and whose health has declined much more rapidly than anticipated; Mina struggles with aging while her nephew badgers her to sell her house and move into assisted living. Hardly the stuff mysteries are made of – but the drama in this story centers on conspiracy and a crime committed years ago. Someone wants to take over this land. And they will stop at nothing to accomplish their purpose – house after house in this small neighborhood has been mysteriously purchased and razed soon after residents moved or passed away. Could there be foul play involved in so many residents dying in such a short frame of time?
We discussed the difference between a whodunit mystery and a suspense novel – how a mystery depends on events to sweep you along, that your job is to untangle the clues and solve the mystery while a suspense novel often shares with you most of the information you need while involving you in the character’s lives. The suspense comes from watching (sometimes in horror, sometimes with pride) these characters muddy up their lives and ultimately come to resolution. Suspense often revolves around the characters, mystery centers on the plot.
This novel also spawned a discussion of aging and the vulnerability of the elderly and how easily they are preyed upon. Mina was a feisty character who we simultaneously admired and felt protective of. The group felt that this was a pleasant novel with characters we cared about but the plot was predictable and the suspense a bit too subtle. The writing was solid and the setting details brought on a wash of childhood memories. There was some disagreement about Finn, the storekeeper’s son and whether he was a good guy at heart and simply misguided or a creep. The optimist in the group felt he was redeemable. Many appreciated the insertion of real-life historical details into the plot including the tale of the World War II plane that hit the Empire State Building and the elevator crash that real life Betty Lou Oliver and the fictional Mina survived. Readers felt that Ephron cleverly wove these details into the plot.
We are all looking forward to hearing Hallie Ephron speak, along with Hank Phillipi Ryan on May 5th at the library – if you are interested, please register on our calendar.
Books mentioned during our discussion: