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In `The Drowning Tree,' a quirky mystery is buoyed by humanity

Like many whose youthful dreams have gone awry, Juno McKay, the narrator-heroine of Carol Goodman's third novel, "The Drowning Tree," does not relish the prospect of attending her college reunion.

Juno's troubles, however, are extreme. Once an aspiring painter, she became pregnant and dropped out of college to get married; Neil, her husband, later tried to drown her, and their child has been institutionalized ever since.

Still caught up in her dreams and memories of Neil, Juno resists new romantic involvements and devotes herself to her teenage daughter and to her work in her family's glassmaking factory.

What draws Juno to her 15th reunion is the chance to hear her best friend, Christine, an art historian, discuss her research on a magnificent stained-glass window, designed by college founder Augustus Penrose and depicting his wife, Eugenie. Christine's lecture stuns the audience when she argues that the image on the window is actually that of Clare, Eugenie's mad half sister, and thus raises tantalizing questions about the Penrose family, supposedly good and proper Victorians.

Spending time with Christine after the lecture, Juno finds her tense and troubled. Within days, Juno and her daughter discover Christine's drugged and drowned body while kayaking on the Hudson, near the Penrose family estate.

And that's just for starters in this colorful, intricate tale. Juno's quest to learn what happened to Christine takes her on a wondrous expedition: She glimpses into the turbulent lives and emotions of Augustus, Eugenie, and Clare; investigates goings-on at the local mental hospital where she reconnects with Neil; and remembers her college days, when she, Christine, and Neil were fellow artists and daredevils. Questions within questions arise; surprising links emerge between past and present.

Though rightly billed as a thriller, "The Drowning Tree" is best read in the study rather than at the beach. Goodman's main characters are passionate artists and scholars for whom living and creativity are inseparable; their thoughts, work, and conversation are sprinkled with allusions to classical mythology, Dante, Ovid, the pre-Raphaelite painters, and the poetry of Tennyson.

Goodman also brings to the narrative her trademark meticulous attention to mood and atmosphere. She eschews swift, plain storytelling and instead, employing abundant water imagery, invests her settings with an ominous but magical quality: For example, Christine's body is discovered in a pool covered with water lilies from which bizarre statuary arises. A decaying mansion overlooks the scene.

Goodman's approach is risky: The parallel Victorian and contemporary stories verge on melodrama; the characters might have come across as arty and affected; and the busyness and density of the plot could have become ends in themselves. Yet the novel succeeds as something more than an entertaining soap opera or a clever jigsaw puzzle. Like the characters in the art and literature they so love, Juno, Christine, and Neil seek healing and renewal. Each has reasons to hide from the world. Christine's interpretation of the figure in the stained-glass window, a woman at a loom, becomes an expression of the journeys they take.

Drawing on Tennyson's Arthurian poem "The Lady of Shalott," which tells of a lady weaver condemned to a life of confinement, Christine examines the moment when the lady rebels against her cloistered existence and looks away from her loom and directly at Sir Lancelot. In Christine's view, Tennyson has portrayed an awakening, a gathering of strength and courage, even in the face of death.

Juno, Christine, and Neil engage our interest because, like the lady at the loom, they are not passive and resigned. Though the high hopes of their college years have fallen apart, they try to build new lives.

Goodman thus immerses readers in a fun and quirky mystery and at the same time explores universal themes of loss and disappointment and the redeeming possibilities of creativity, friendship, and work.

Christine sees the lady at the loom as "you and me," as a person struggling to face the demands of the world with all the risks and hardships involved. The same can be said of the novel's main characters, and so we root for them as they make their way through the strange and dangerous surroundings Goodman has conjured up.

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