by Stephanie Gertler

May 2002
ISBN: 0-525-94639-X
Reviewer Graphic Button Putnam

The Puzzle Bark Tree begins with Grace Hammond Barnett receiving a call from her sister early one morning with the horrible news that their parents were found dead in their bed. The cause of their parents’ death, suicide, was shocking to some, but not to Grace and her sister, Melanie. Grace and Melanie always knew that when one of their parents died, the other would soon follow – their mother had always told them so. Grace and Melanie’s childhood was very different from the norm. They were not allowed to make noise, music was forbidden and their parents never showed affection to anyone but each other. The only comfort the sisters found was in their loving housekeeper, Jemma.

Grace’s life as an adult has not changed in many ways. While she has a daughter she adores, her husband, Adam, is emotionally cold towards her. Adam is a heart surgeon who is brilliant at reconstructing the physical heart, but cannot help Grace heal the wounds her childhood has left. The marriage has been slowly disintegrating and the death of Grace’s parents and the wounds it reopens may just be the final straw.

When Grace discovers that her parents have left her a house on an island near Sabbath Landing, New York – a house Grace never even knew existed, she knows she has to travel there to try to unravel the reasons behind her parents’ unhappiness. There Grace meets a man, Luke Keegan, who takes her to the house her parents lived in many years ago, completely untouched just the way it was when they suddenly left it so long ago. Luke not only sheds light on the cause for her parents’ emotional neglect and tells the tale of the horrible tragedy that left them unable to love their children, but he also awakens in Grace the love she wanted to share with her husband but cannot.

While The Puzzle Bark Tree is more mystery than romance, the love story between Grace and Luke is an integral part of the story. Nonetheless, I’m never comfortable with romances involving adultery, no matter how it is sugarcoated to appear justifiable. Despite that criticism, the mystery behind Grace’s childhood was realistically and touchingly revealed. While there is no excuse for her parents’ reactions to the tragedy they underwent, it is also understandable and The Puzzle Bark Tree touched upon that emotion exceptionally well.

I found all of the characters well written and multi-dimensional. Even those with smaller roles in the story, such as Grace’s husband, Adam, and her daughter, Kate were well thought out. The descriptions of rural town life in Sabbath Landing were so vividly portrayed it made the reader feel as though it was a place we had actually visited ourselves.

While I cannot find any fault with Ms. Gertler’s writing ability, the overall emotion of The Puzzle Bark Tree left me feeling gloomy and sad. For that reason alone, I cannot give the novel a higher rating that others may feel it deserves.

Reviewed in September 2002 by Nicole.

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