Laura Rider leads an ordinary Midwestern life. She and her husband Charlie own and run a thriving nursery and neither one of them have ever strayed far from their hometowns, let alone Wisconsin. Laura is gifted at designing beautiful gardens and Charlie does the heavy lifting and is gifted at making love. She enjoys gardening, but she harbors a secret desire to write a romance novel. She sees no irony in the fact that she wants to write romance novels when she refuses to sleep with Charlie because he wears her out. When Jenna Faroli, a Wisconsin NPR host whom Laura idolizes, moves to Hartley, Laura sees and seizes the opportunity to make her dreams come true.
All is not what it seems in Laura Rider's Masterpiece. Laura Rider is a deliciously unreliable narrator. My first clue that something was not quite right took place at the Garden Club meeting. She was thinking about how badly a relationship with one of the member's brothers ended. Two traumatic things happened as a result that caused her to leave town for a year, but they are mentioned almost as an after thought. I stopped and re-read that section to make sure that I read it correctly. Time and distance diminishes pain, but there was something unsettling about how removed she was from her own past.
After Laura returned to town, she did all that she could to ensure that she remained in control. She didn't marry Charlie so much because she loved him as that she could make him heel. He wasn't one to create waves when she what was best for their business and made plans for its future. He simply provided the muscle needed to get the job done. Despite the fact that she was no longer sleeping with him, allowing her to be in control enabled him to stay young at heart. When she encourages Charlie to develop a friendship with Jenna, it's as if she is throwing him a bone for being such a loyal companion. Laura is a psychopathic gardener, planting and fertilizing her seeds to suit her own designs, then ruthlessly ripping the plants out of the ground when she finds that they've borne fruit. It is difficult to say whether it would be best to be on her bad side or her good side. Laura doesn't make a distinction.
Laura Rider's Masterpiece is an unusual novel. When Jenna was introduced, her almost condescending world view seemed as much out of place in Hartley as it was with the novel. Laura saw Jenna as her every woman, but to me she stuck out like a sore thumb. However, from the moment I caught a glimpse of what Jane Hamilton was be doing with the story, I couldn't and didn't want to turn back. I was hooked. With the exception of Charlie, a character I adored from the beginning, my opinions and attitudes about Laura and Jenna radically shifted from the beginning to the end. All of these elements combined for a refreshing read. If you enjoy novels with untrustworthy and perhaps antisocial narrators, this is a book you should pick up. The lingering chill from Laura's icy heart will help keep you cool this summer.