By Caite Dolan-Leach
At the outset of this puzzling journey of Ava Antipova to determine if her identical twin sister Zelda is really dead, victim of a murder or suicide, or running an elaborate gaslight to torment Ava and slip out from under a mountain of debt, debut author Caite Dolan-Leach provides insight into why she chose the alphabet as the structure of her novel. Seems Ava has been away, escaping the grasp of her dysfunctional family in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York to study, among other things, the OuLiPo movement in Paris. Simply, OuLiPo is a method of writing that places constraints upon the writer. These might be as challenging as writing a piece without, say, using a letter or series of letters (a lipogram). Or, as with this novel, writing a twenty-four chapter novel, starting each chapter with a letter of the alphabet, and having each chapter contain a clue. While a clever way to write a mystery novel, it can, and in this case does, force the author to come with a long series of clues from the supposedly dead Zelda that can leave readers sighing in exasperation. Perhaps if the payoff at the end had been a dramatic twist, persevering would have been worth it.
So, the story goes, Ava returns from Paris when she learns of her twin’s death in a barn fire on the property of their family’s winery. This event forces Ava to return to a family she has always wanted to escape from, particularly after her sister beds her boyfriend Wyatt Darling (yes, unbearably cute), who comes across as milquetoast left too long in warm milk. Ava again has to face this, as well as a father who walked out on the family, a mother in the last throes of deadly dementia, a tragic family history, a history of alcoholism and drug use, and a mediocre winery now weighted down with debt, stumbling like a drunk to its demise. Can’t blame her for putting an ocean between herself and constant aggravation.
Each of Zelda’s clues brings back memories and in dribs and drabs fill readers in on the dark family doings (here think another twin’s death, matricide, irresponsibility, and the like). Then there’s the currency of the clues giving the idea that Zelda’s watching and cackling over the helter-skelter of Ava, and readers, trying to figure out if Zelda is alive or truly dead. In short, it all gets to be just too much.
While an interesting effort, it’s not a particularly satisfying one. And if you need the alphabet prominent in your mystery, well, you might want to give Sue Grafton a look. She’s closing in Z, you know. w/c