The Winters’ Suspense

October 2, 2011

Suspense is just about the oldest trick in fiction. Get the reader on the edge of the seat, demanding to know if the dark figure on the staircase was the villain, if the rescuers will arrive on time, if the assassin will squeeze off his shot—then postpone the revelation till late in the story. Even in literary novels, which presumably have loftier aims than tickling the reader’s thrillbone, prickly suspense is not uncommon. Recently, though, I’ve read a novel that creates suspense at the outset and then downplays it—to the reader’s benefit, I think.

Lisa Tucker’s latest, The Winters in Bloom, begins with the kidnapping of five-year-old Michael, only child of Kyra and David Winter, and both parents quickly and separately assume that their past has come back to haunt them. The suspense is immediate and intense, and we don’t learn the boy’s fate or recognize the kidnapper till the end of the book. You couldn’t ask for a more suspenseful setup.

Nevertheless, early chapters from the boy’s point of view let us know that he’s not in immediate danger, and the author gives us information like this:

“his [the boy’s] assumption that his parents knew this lady would … turn out to be true.… Even his feeling that the lady loved him was true, though her love was a desperate, entirely unexpected response that he couldn’t possibly have made sense of.”

A desperate love—not reassuring, but not likely to lead to murder or abuse, it seems.

The following chapters examine the background of each person in depth, weaving interlocking stories in which the fascination lies not in the plot but in the character development. Though the mystery of the kidnapper’s identity remains strong, the author doesn’t amp up our worry about the boy. The tone is calm, the pace unhurried; it doesn’t feel like the book will end in disaster.

This muting of suspense allows us to pay attention to the characters and to ask, not just who would snatch the boy, but why—what exactly in the past has come back to haunt this family, and how does it make psychological sense? The technique shows a mature author, someone who knows she can hold our interest without sensationalism.

The Winters in Bloom turns out to be a fine novel, both clever and profound, full of subtle characterizations that make sometimes bizarre behavior entirely convincing. I even found myself believing in David, the husband/father of “steady reasonableness” and “cheerful good nature” whose “enormous amount of compassion” leads him time and again to assume the fault is his own. I won’t say whether he proves correct, but on behalf of all husbands I should point out that we aren’t always to blame.

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