Bryn Greenwood, known to her old classmates in K-State’s Creative Writing graduate program as Sarah, has a strength that informs all her writing. In her first commercial novel, 2012’s “Last Will”, she showed how an imaginative writer would avoid cliché without even acknowledging it as a possibility.
That book, about inheritance, was set mostly in northern Oklahoma.
Her new novel, “Lie Lay Lain”, is set mostly in Tampa. In both cases the settings are significant. But don’t jump to any conclusions about what they might mean to the two stories.
And it isn’t as if Greenwood simply avoids making small town Okies into hicks and west coast Floridians crackers. Rather she makes them into individual and utterly believable people who just happen to have been influenced by something in the local water.
The two young women in the new book —which is due out the beginning of next month — would be cliches in most contemporary novels. They are middle to lower-middle class, they belong to a large protestant church (where Olivia works), and they are interested in appearances. Olivia paints and glues fancy decorations on her fingernails. Jennifer is interested in shoes from the book’s first paragraph.
But the two aren’t shallow. They aren’t without sophistication, and they learn as the book goes along. They aren’t, in short, what they might be in a lesser novel.
They are the subjects of alternating chapters (with a couple of exceptions). They each sacrifice to help someone with built-in troubles-an orphan girl and a brother with a mind limited by injury. They are each successful in jobs that aren’t, finally, good enough for them. And they each take some solace from relationships with men.
Olivia and Jennifer also know each other. But they are not really all that much alike. Olivia learns that others don’t know how to value her good qualities. Jennifer learns that her good qualities may not be enough. As the book moves along, Olivia’s fake romance becomes something more substantial. Jennifer’s romance, which we have reason to believe is genuine, eventually proves to be less than ideal.
Lie Lay Lain is a book about characters. But they are characters revealed through action. In that first chapter Jennifer is crossing a busy street when she his knocked down by the body of a woman who was hit as she followed our heroine through a cross-walk. Dying from her injuries, the victim misidentifies Jennifer as her estranged sister and makes her promise to take care of the confused woman’s daughter.
What is it about Jennifer that makes her promise to that woman haunt her? The daughter is refused by the woman’s real sister. When the little girl is placed in foster care, Jennifer hires a detective to find her and then begins visiting the foster home, even leaving a present for the kid.
And when the child disappears, Jennifer and her agent notify the state’s child protective services office and manage to prompt an investigation that becomes a news story.
Early on Olivia’s problems are mostly about her willingness to make true a lying claim that she is dating an ambulance attendant. The young man in question is willing. But it will turn out that his professional qualifications, dependability, and even his name are all lies of his own.
It isn’t until a little later in the book that we see Olivia take special responsibilities for her brother, who was on his way to a career as a mechanical engineer before an accident put a cap on his understanding.
Then there is trouble at the sheltered workplace, trouble which ends in the death of one of the brother’s work-mates. Did Olivia’s sibling kill a fellow who bullied him?
Usually we’ve been directed to be interested in the victims of bullying.
But Greenwood acts as if she not only didn’t get the memo, but as if she doesn’t even know it was written. This is an example of the how the writer gives us believable characters, who are the strength of this engrossing, well-paced second novel.