I am a mystery addict, but I also enjoy an engaging novel from time to time. The works of Chris Bohjalian fall into that second category. When I began to think about which of his novels I’d read, I was surprised that I’d read four of his twenty books.
Three of his novels have been made into televisions movies—“Secrets of Eden,” “Past the Bleachers,” and “Midwives”—and another three are in development.
I first discovered Bohjalian when “Double Bind” came out in 2007. I was probably hooked by the references to the “Great Gatsby” in the reviews. “Double Bind” ranks up there as one of the most intriguing books I’ve read. The lines blur between Gatsby’s tale on Long Island and this story that takes place in Vermont. I was kept guessing until the very end, and even then I questioned what had really happened.
When I went to Amazon to get a bit of info for this column, I was shocked to see the book’s average review rating was a mere 3.6 out of 5. I guess it’s not to everyone’s taste, but I couldn’t put it down. One review described the novel as evoking Fitzgerald and also channeling Hitchcock. I think of it as literary fiction.
I enjoyed it so much that I went on to read “Skeletons at the Feast,” a love story set in Germany during WWII. In the book, people are trying to escape from Germany and reach the Allies. The cast of characters includes an aristocratic Prussian teen, a Scottish POW, and an escapee from a train on its way to Auschwitz. I think it was while reading this novel that I came to realize how fluid the borders were in Eastern Europe in the 1800s and 1900s. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to be Prussian one year and German the next. Reading novels like this one makes me realize just how fortunate we are here in the US.
Off and on through the years, I’ve read quite a few novels set in Europe during WWII, but none set in Italy until I read “Light in the Ruins.” It begins in Tuscany in 1943 with another aristocratic family. They don’t try to leave Italy, but they do seek to escape entanglement with either side. The story moves between the war and 1955 as it reveals the story of the Rosatis. It’s as much a story of family as it is of the war.
Bohjalian returns to modern times and Vermont in “The Sleepwalker.” I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that the sleepwalker, Annalee Ahlberg, disappears one night. The plot describes how her disappearance and her sleepwalking play out in the family dynamics. The story kept me guessing. Was she alive somewhere? Had she died?
I suspect I’ll pick up another of his books again one day. “Sandcastle Girls” has been on my list for a bit. For some reason, the plot of his latest book, “Flight Attendant,” doesn’t grab me, though it’s getting rave reviews. Perhaps I’m attracted to his books because they provide not only character studies, but also mysteries. Whether you’re a mystery fan or a fan of well-written novels, I don’t think you can go wrong with a Bohjalian book.
Kathy Manos Penn is an author and columnist. Her latest book, “Lord Banjo the Royal Pooch,” and her collection of columns, “TheInk Penn: Celebrating the Magic in the Everyday,”are available on Amazon. Contact Kathy at firstname.lastname@example.org.