Desert Isle Keeper
The Glass Forest
Cynthia Swanson’s The Glass Forest is one of those books that pretty much leapt out of nowhere and took up permanent residence in my heart. I picked it up on a whim, and I’m so glad I did. It’s an examination of a family’s dark secrets, filled with unforgettable characters doing their best to survive against some pretty terrible odds, and I loved every minute I spent in the world Ms. Swanson has created.
It’s the fall of 1960 and newly married Angie Glass is living a life straight out of a storybook. Her husband Paul is handsome and charming, and he adores her and their infant son. She loves the small Wisconsin town they call home. She’s surrounded by a close-knit group of friends and family, and she can’t imagine wanting anything more. But a completely unexpected, out-of-the-blue phone call from Paul’s seventeen-year-old niece Ruby, a girl Angie barely knows, changes her life irrevocably.
It seems that Ruby’s father has committed suicide and her mother has run away, leaving Ruby alone to deal with the subsequent police investigation. Uncertain how to handle things, she reaches out to her Uncle Paul, who immediately travels to upstate New York with Angie and their son. Angie expects to serve as a sort of stand-in mother figure to Ruby, but the teenager instantly rebuffs her. Now, Angie and Paul must discover the truth behind Henry’s suicide and Silja’s disappearance.
From the very beginning, Angie can’t help but think that Ruby knows more than she’s telling about what really happened to her parents, but Ruby refuses to confide in her. Instead, she wanders the woods near her family’s property alone or in the company of the local doctor, a man shrouded in his own terrible secrets. As time passes, Angie becomes ever more desperate to uncover the truth and return home to Wisconsin, for something just doesn’t feel right to her about the town of Stonekill and the people who live there.
The Glass Forest is a deeply atmospheric novel that skillfully blends historical fiction with literary mystery and a healthy dose of family dysfunction thrown into the mix, but, even more than that, it’s the story of three women, each fighting in her own way to overcome circumstances beyond her control. Angie and Ruby take turns narrating events directly following the suicide of Ruby’s father, and readers are also given illuminating glimpses into the years leading up to the tragic event courtesy of flashbacks from Silja’s perspective. I was pleased by Ms. Swanson’s ability to give each woman’s chapters equal weight. Often, I’m more invested in one character’s story, but that definitely wasn’t the case here. I found the novel as a whole to be completely engrossing.
I found myself really wanting to feel compassion for Ruby throughout. She’s a young woman caught in an untenable situation, the kind of character I usually embrace right off the bat. However, her self-possession and general prickliness made her really difficult to warm up to, no matter how hard I tried. I admired her strength and fortitude, but I never really felt able to be fully in her corner. Fortunately, Ms. Swanson does a fantastic job showing the reader why Ruby is the way she is, and I came away with a great deal of appreciation for her character.
The author gives us the idea that Silja’s marriage to Henry was not a happy one. Henry is a deeply damaged veteran of the Second World War and he treats Silja quite badly. There aren’t super detailed descriptions of domestic violence, but the reader is definitely aware that it happens. If this is something you’re sensitive to, you might want to take this into account before deciding to read this novel.
The Glass Forest is the kind of book that will remain with you long after you reach the end. I finished it about a week ago, and the characters are still on my mind. Ms. Swanson has most certainly earned a place on my list of authors to keep an eye on and I can’t wait to see what she does next.