The Lying Woods
What happens when it turns out your father is a liar and cheat on a colossal scale? The Lying Woods takes a look at this difficult subject through the eyes of a young man about to discover that the past has a way of catching up with everyone.
Owen Foster’s family has long been in the oil business, but it wasn’t until his father took over the company that they achieved real wealth. For Owen, this meant changing from the small-town middle class existence he had in elementary school to a world that involved fancy boarding schools, luxurious vacations and a posh home in an elite neighborhood. He may not have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but his recent years have enabled him to become quite adept at using that utensil. When his mother arrives at his school with the news that their entire life has been funded by money their father stole from local investors and employee pension funds, and that he has disappeared, Owen’s world is turned upside down. He is forced to return to Lake Cane and finish his senior year of high school at a public institution filled with people who have been harmed by what his father did.
Owen is understandably surprised at just how much the townspeople hate him for something he had nothing to do with. In spite of having their home and almost all their possessions auctioned off in order to repay investors, many people suspect that he and his mother were in on the fraud. They receive nasty phone calls, threatening letters and Owen finds himself in altercations at school, since kids he once played with now view him as a target for their anger. The aunt he and his mom are staying with is no help; she’s made it clear she sides with the people of Lake Cane. Fortunately, Owen finds another refuge.
Following advice from one of the few sympathetic adults in the community, Owen goes for a run in the countryside where he discovers a pecan orchard owned by a reclusive man who calls himself Gus. After a brief conversation, Owen’s offered a battered truck and work in the orchard as a means to pay for it. As Owen settles into his new reality, he develops strong ties to the farm and its owner, unaware of the impact they have had on his past and the power they will have over his future.
The mystery of what happened with Owen’s father (including an odd letter he sent Owen just before the fallout) takes a back seat to the story of Owen’s present life and how he acclimates to the changes in it. The author captures perfectly the way children mirror the behavior of their parents; most of the kids Owen meets have an ax to grind with him simply because their parents do. The exception is Pippa, his once next-door neighbor and ex-best friend who felt betrayed when the family wealth allowed Owen to move to a nicer neighborhood and private school. She spends the start of the book pontificating on how Owen needs to repent of his father’s sins and cut the community slack since they were the ones damaged by his father’s crimes. Pippa’s – and everyone else’s – attitudes perfectly reflect how small towns are rarely the warm, loving, places depicted in many romances. People who have known Owen’s mom since birth want nothing to do with her once her situation changes, which would make sense if she had been a bitch who lorded her wealth over everyone, but she wasn’t.
This is a dual-timeline novel, which gives us glimpses into the past of Owen’s mom and dad, Noah and Maggie. We meet them at their first encounter and get to know them as they spend one long, hot summer together. Maggie is a goody-goody, small-town rich girl who’s ready to flex her wings during the summer between her senior year of high school and first year of college. That flexing involves sneaking around with bad boy Noah as a slap in the face to her controlling parents. This portion of the story contained the biggest problems I had with the book. Taking place in 1999, it reads like it was the summer of 1959 instead. Maggie had no cell phone, no internet. I lived in a remote small town from 1996 to early 1999, was middle class and had both. Saying her parents were old fashioned doesn’t cut it; she would have been able to use a computer at the public library or school. This is relevant because Maggie finds herself in a situation where her naïveté and inability to take control of her situation lead to a poor life choice.
On top of the unrealistic nature of Maggie’s past, she has no agency in the present. Any problem that crops up immediately becomes an issue for someone else to solve. She leans heavily on what few friends and family she has while handwringing over her dilemma. She also allows Owen to make decisions which no child should be allowed to control and for large chunks of time she simply doesn’t know what he’s up to.
In fact, the characters are what make and break the story. On the positive side, the depiction of Owen and his friends from boarding school skims reality. The lack of cursing and sex makes them seem a bit too Disney-fiction but there’s enough there to let us see them as people. On the other hand, the author does too much skimming, glides too often and too easily over deep issues to give anything here real depth. That’s especially true with the villain, who is more caricature than character.
Ultimately, I was disappointed with The Lying Woods. While written with smooth prose and covering several intriguing subjects, unrealistic characterizations kept the narrative from being all it could be. It’s a good read but it’s not a great one and that’s regrettable because it had potential. Fans of angsty, sweet YA will probably enjoy it, even if it doesn’t make their favorites shelf.