If ever the adage "things aren't always what they seem" applied to a novel, it would be to The Lake of Dead Languages. In her debut novel, Carol Goodman spins a tale that keeps the reader guessing on multiple fronts. The novel begins in the present day, when protagonist Jane Hudson returns to her alma mater, the Heart Lake School for Girls in the Adirondacks, to teach Latin. Newly divorced, Jane seems to have fled to Heart Lake to take refuge and re-evaluate her life. But the reader quickly discovers she has a past to reconcile when a page from her teenage journal reappears after more than two decades . . . and one of her students tries to kill herself.
Part two of the novel flashes back to Jane's teenage years. Here the reader has a chance to get to know the younger Jane, a lonely girl who lives on the other side of the river ("in Corinth, it's the river and not the train tracks that divide the haves from the have-nots"). Her mother encourages her to take Latin for the sole purpose of meeting, and hopefully befriending, the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers. And it is in Latin class that Jane is befriended by siblings Matt and Lucy Toller two of the three teenagers who later commit suicide during Jane's senior year at Heart Lake School.
The reader looks on as Jane steps through the veil of young adulthood when she loses her virginity and faces the death of a parent. But the trials of growing up are further complicated as the circumstances of the trio of tragic deaths are slowly unraveled. The reader begins to wonder if the student deaths were really suicide and comes to realize that Jane may be the only one who can answer that question.
While avid mystery readers may find they can figure out "whodunit" before the final page of most novels, The Lake of Dead Languages holds its secrets to the end. If it weren't for Goodman's keen ability to weave a mystery of multiple layers, each revealed with exquisite timing, her picturesque prose would be reason enough to keep the reader turning the pages.
Amy Rauch Neilson is a writer and editor in Belleville, Michigan.