Rock of Ages, by Howard Owen ****

rockofagesRock of Ages, an intriguing novel by Howard Owen originally published in 2007, isn’t merely a mystery, but engaging fiction. I enjoyed everything except one small but noticeable problem near the end. Giant thanks to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for allowing me a glimpse of the digital version in advance. It becomes available for purchase June 9.

Georgia is a respected professor for whom menopause and mounting personal losses—the death of her husband comes at almost the same time her aunt dies, and her parents are both gone—become so distracting that she abruptly takes a leave of absence. She has seen her father’s ghost sitting in the back of her classroom.

She takes time off and heads for the small town in North Carolina where her aunt had lived. When she arrives, her son Justin is there with his girlfriend, Leeza, who is pregnant.

The first half of the book is where the writer is at his best. The villain, “Pooh” Blackwell, is artfully portrayed. Georgia’s former teacher, Forsythia Crumpler, was also really well spun. I found myself talking to Georgia, making notes in my kindle asking her just what the heck she is doing, talking to her son and his honey that way. Does she want to be forever estranged?

Georgia’s misbehaviors are subtle enough at first that the reader is left wondering whether this is the author’s idea of appropriate parental behavior, or whether he is deliberately drawing a difficult protagonist. Turns out it’s the latter, and the way he develops her as the story progresses is terrific, at least until near the story’s conclusion.

So now let’s talk about the rape. What on earth makes the writer think that a woman of 52 years who has been through a good deal of trauma in her life, will think rape is not a very big deal? When she was “younger, a little more precious and fragile”, it would have been much worse.

Say what?

If the protagonist’s mental narrative had only said she was glad to be alive, I could roll with that, but he adds just enough other considerations to make me want to throw the book across the room. I speak as a woman that has never been sexually assaulted, but like most people, I know women that have. And research actually indicates that the more trauma one has been through after age 30, the harder one grieves, because all of the other losses are relived along with the new, fresh loss. Until this point, I had bonded to Georgia’s character, and she was practically tangible to me. When she began reflecting about the rape, the spell was broken and it was just the product of some clueless male’s bizarre imagination. It’s probably a bad idea for anyone to try to quantify a rape or decide where it falls on the progression of a character’s negative experiences, and all the moreso for a man to decide about a female character. One star fell off and this tirade jumped into my review. So there you have it.

The ending is otherwise not terribly imaginative, but also veers away from the trite, pat ending I thought I saw coming. Sadly, by that point I was too irritated to enjoy it.

The novel is billed as a mystery, and it surely includes two of them. We wonder about the ghost; it has made another appearance at the Rock of Ages, which is locally known to be haunted. We also wonder whether Pooh Blackwell killed Aunt Jenny for the deed to her house, or whether she drowned accidentally. But really, the main story here is Georgia’s inner struggle. The mystery takes a back seat, and it works well that way, apart from my earlier qualification.

The prequel to this story won acclaim, and I would love to read it if I can find a copy.

The series will be one to watch. Perhaps Owen will write Justin in as his next protagonist, and if so, I would love to read it.

Interesting work from an award-winning writer.

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