The Glass Forest

The Glass Forest, A Novel by Cynthia Swanson

I’ve just finished the novel, The Glass Forest, and, after having been on another extended “good read” drought, (I read plenty of books, but find that, as I’m a picky reader, I only want to recommend about 25% of them!) I’m happy to say that I give this book a well-deserved “two thumbs up”.

A brief, yet spot-on summary from the Goodreads website:

“From the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookseller comes a gripping literary suspense novel set in the 1960s about a deeply troubled family and three women who will reveal its dark truths.”

I chose this book, admittedly, primarily because the story starts with a young family living in Door County, WI, and let’s face it, even if a book isn’t the greatest thing you’ve ever read, it’s usually more fun to read a novel that includes settings you’re familiar with. In the case of The Glass Forest, I’m happy to say that even though the action quickly moves away from the placid Door County setting, the rest of the book is an intriguing read that kept me wanting to turn those pages! The other thing that intrigued me about this novel is that it’s set in the early 1960’s, a period that interests me, not only for it’s historical significance in American history, but for the sometimes eccentric mid-century modern design in architecture and home fashion, of the time. Thanks to the author's attention to detail, I found myself immersed in that style. We are also introduced to family bomb shelters in this story. Although, as a child growing up in the 1960’s, I do remember my parents having canned goods, towels, bottles of water, a radio, and more stashed in our basement, I had never explored what an actual bomb shelter, built specifically for the purpose of protecting one’s family, could be like. Now I know.

The book opens with Angie Glass taking her young son out onto the water in Door County. What happens there is a foreshadowing of what will follow when her husband, Paul receives news that his brother, Henry, has apparently committed suicide, and Henry’s wife Silja is missing. Paul, Angie, and their child travel to make funeral arrangements and take care of Ruby, Henry and Silja’s teenage daughter. Not long after they arrive, it is revealed that the police suspect Henry’s death was not a suicide, and Silja is still missing. Daughter Ruby is uncommunicative; an introverted, reclusive teen.

As the story progresses, we learn of Silja’s story through flashbacks starting in the early 1940’s when she first met Henry, and follow her life up to the time of her disappearance and Henry’s death in the early 1960’s. Setting the story during this time period works beautifully, as the author weaves historical events, and the influence they had on individuals, into the lives of our characters. Without being heavy-handed, or creating historical fiction, the author, Cynthia Swanson does a wonderful job of taking us on these journeys.

Henry’s missing wife, Silja, for instance, grows up living in the Alku, amongst a group of Finnish socialists in Brooklyn, New York. Prior to reading this story, I knew nothing about Finntown, but the authors use of this story line at that time in our history is quite intriguing.

From the author’s website:

“Each location has its own purpose. Family friends own a cottage in Door County (which is often described as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest”) and I’ve spent a lot of time there. I needed Angie to be from a small town, and Baileys Harbor fit the bill. I spent my childhood and adolescence in northern Westchester, and my senses and memories of that area are vivid. It was pure luck to stumble across the Alku in my research. I wanted Silja to be Caucasian and a second-generation American growing up in Brooklyn, but not Catholic or Jewish. In trying to determine an ethnicity for her, I came across the socialists in Finntown (now known as Sunset Park) who built the Alku—the first co-op in the United States. Because I didn’t know the area, I contacted a real estate agent who had a listing in the Alku. He was kind enough to give me a tour of the apartment for sale, as well as the entire building. It turned out he’d done extensive research himself on the neighborhood, and he gave me a booklet he’d put together that explained the history of Finntown and each of the co-ops built there in the early twentieth century.”

Silja’s husband, Henry, on the other hand has lived an entirely different existence. When their worlds are joined through marriage, as the years pass, truths are revealed and deeply set beliefs simmering under the surface are brought to the boiling point. Dark secrets affect all three of the women whom the story is told through, Silja, Angie and Ruby in this fascinating tale.

This is not a fast-paced thriller, but a character-driven story. It is suspenseful, not in the clinging to the edge of your seat kind of way, but rather in a way that captures your interest at the beginning and grips you as you move throughout the book. I found it to be extremely well written and burned through the second half like there was no tomorrow.

Hooked by the quality of Cynthia Swanson’s writing in this book, my next reading adventure will be to check out the authors best-selling novel, The Bookseller. I hope you find yourself looking into The Glass Forest, but have your book light at the ready. If you’re like me, you’ll want to keep reading through the night...and you’ll find that this is a forest which turns very dark very quickly.

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