Thursday, February 05, 2009

Shadows of Lancaster County Lacks Focus, Sparkle

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Annalise Bailey Jensen can't outrun her past, no matter how far she flees. Sunny California - miles and miles from her hometown in Lancaster, Pennsylvania - seems to be the perfect place to reinvent herself. She shortens her name to Anna Bailey, lands a job as a "skip tracer," moves into a colleague's beach house, and tries to forget her former life. All is well until the fateful day that everything changes. First, she gets a call from her sister-in-law, begging Anna to help her locate her husband. Anna's brother, Bobby, never came home, and his wife knows he wouldn't just leave her and their little boy. While she's on the phone, Anna hears loud bumps coming from upstairs - when she investigates, she finds her roommate unconscious and a masked man searching her bedroom. The intruder demands to know where she's hiding The Beauharnais Rubies, jewels Anna's never heard of. Clearly, it's a case of mistaken identity, but she can't quite put the incident out of her mind.

So begins Shadows of Lancaster County, Mindy Starns Clark's second standalone novel. By the 7th chapter, Anna's winging her way home, plagued by memories of the event that forced her to leave Pennsylvania in the first place. She prays 11 years and a new haircut will be enough to disguise the face - her face - that once dominated the local and national news. All she wants is to slip quietly into Pennsylvania, find her brother, and high-tail it back to California. It soon becomes clear that things aren't going to be that simple. When Bobby's best friend turns up dead, Bobby's disappearance takes on a new connotation. Could he really have killed his best friend? Anna knows that's impossible, but as she traces her brother's steps, she's finding all kinds of crazy activity that seems out of character. When her old flame shows up, complaining of a break-in at his condo, Anna begins to wonder if someone isn't trying to get revenge for her past misdeeds. After all, every member of the Dreiheis 6 - a name the media gave to her and a group of her friends - has been targeted. Is someone trying to harm them because of the horror they caused 11 years ago? Or does it have more to do with Bobby's work in a DNA lab? Did Bobby really kill his best friend? Why? And what - if anything - do the rubies have to do with it all?

Anna, who works as a people finder, has her hands full with leads that take her in every direction. Tracked by the media, she searches frantically for any signs of her brother, who may or may not be a killer. With the help of her Amish in-laws, she sorts through shocking DNA results that point to a crime even more sinister than murder. In the rush to find her brother, Anna almost forgets about the rubies, but a frightening encounter convinces her that they are very much on someone's mind. From the California coast to peaceful Amish country to the high-tech labs of DNA researchers, Anna races here, there and everywhere to find her brother. In the process, she will come face-to-face with the ghosts of her own past.

The plot of Shadows of Lancaster County sounds confusing because it is. Although Anna's search for her brother forms a strong main plotline and the whole DNA research makes for interesting reading, the story gets derailed bigtime by the subplot about the Beauharnais rubies. The whole idea seems hastily tacked on, never becoming fully entwined with the novel's main events. It's as if Clark is just trying to tackle way too much in one story. Without the distracting subplot, this would have been a much better, much tighter novel. Although clumsy plotting is my biggest beef with this novel, I also found the characters lackluster. Most exuded no personality whatsoever, making it difficult to remember - or care - who was who. Likewise, Clark's writing bumps along, without the smoothness it takes to really captivate a reader.

Despite all this, the novel held enough intrigue to keep me reading. I didn't stay up until the wee hours just to finish, but I did finish. The plot holes really bugged me, but Clark did explore some interesting and unique topics. Also, I don't know if this book qualifies as Christian fiction, but it does talk a lot about faith and forgiveness. Anna prays and relies on God throughout the book. This, coupled with a lack of profanity, graphic violence or sex, makes Shadows of Lancaster County a clean read - a novelty I always appreciate. It reminded me of an edgy Beverly Lewis book.

Shadows of Lancaster County has the makings of a taut, suspenseful novel; unfortunately, it sags under the weight of haphazard plotting, indistinct characters and dull writing. It's not a terrible book, it's just not a really good one.

Grade: C

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