Thursday, July 28, 2011

Trees and Secrets: My Review of Harlan Coben's "The Woods"

I have learned over the years – in the most horrible ways imaginable – that the wall between life and death, between extraordinary beauty and mind-boggling ugliness, between the most innocent setting and a frightening bloodbath, is flimsy.
The Woods, Harlan Coben pp. 3
Twenty years ago, four teenagers at summer camp walked into the woods at night. Two were found murdered, and the others were never seen again. Four families had their lives changed forever. Now, two decades later, they are about to change again.
For Paul Copeland, the county prosecutor of Essex, New Jersey, mourning the loss of his sister has only recently begun to subside. Cope, as he is known, is now dealing with raising his six-year-old daughter as a single father after his wife has died of cancer. Balancing family life and a rapidly ascending career as a prosecutor distracts him from his past traumas, but only for so long. When a homicide victim is found with evidence linking him to Cope, the well-buried secrets of the prosecutor’s family are threatened.
Is this homicide victim one of the campers who disappeared with his sister? Could his sister be alive? Cope has to confront so much he left behind that summer twenty years ago: his first love, Lucy; his mother, who abandoned the family; and the secrets that his Russian parents might have been hiding even from their own children. Cope must decide what is better left hidden in the dark and what truths can be brought to the light.
              I have read, to date, one other Harlan Coben book. It was The Innocent and it was rather good, the twist ending, however not being very twisty at all if you had been paying proper attention. The Woods is very similar to The Innocent, which makes sense since the minor characters of The Innocent are present in this book. Though, when I think about it – I am not sure I like The Woods as much.  

                The premise is straight forward, if creepy: Twenty years ago, at a summer camp, five teenagers were murdered; two bodies were never found. One of those missing bodies is the sister of our main character, Cope. An immigrant from Soviet Russia when he was a child, Cope struggles with the interplay between his old Russian upbringing and his new (and fully realized) American persona. However, he is somewhat sexist, a bit racist and kind of irritating like that. Actually, I found him shockingly sexist. Which was strange – the present day part of the book begins with Cope talking about one of his current trials (he is a New Jersey D.A.), in which a young black girl is taking the stand against her alleged rapists. Cope’s thoughts on this are so progressive I wanted to clap him on the back! The fact that the elements of the Rape Shield law and the arguments around it were articulated in such a powerful way – and in such an egalitarian way – was refreshing and a great read. 

                However, less than a few chapters later, he says this gem: 

I prefer hiring single women of a certain age. You find a woman over the age of, say, thirty-three, and she lives for her career and will give you hours and devotion the married ones with kids will never give.
                I am still not sure what to think of it … 

                He can’t be serious right? 
                No … oh, well he is. Instantly, the rest of the  book was slightly tainted for me – slightly suspect, and I couldn’t trust Cope, no matter how many more references he put in about the rape case and his thoughts on the mistreatment of African-American young women in the
judicial system. 

                Cope suddenly became less attractive as a hero for me. 

                Then came his lady-love, Lucy. 

    Most. Irritating. Heroine. 

    Honestly – she is just too secretive, too intense, too willing to trust some people for no reason, and dismiss others for no reason, that I found myself frowning at her every time she made a move. 

                And the ending … 


                So, my review is lackluster to say the least, which is too bad because the plot itself was pretty good – it delved into Soviet mysteries and immigration, with old spy networks laying plotlines that seemed to go nowhere but ended up in a strange place; there was the interesting matriarch of the Perez family and her way with words and secrets that held my attention; and, then there was the actual resolution – though I didn’t appreciate the whole of the epilogue (it had something that should have been dealt with in the body of the book). 

                All in all, it is a great plot – it’s the characters that are frustrating. My favourite is Uncle Sasha – the mob guy, which shows you how desperate I was getting for character development. It started out with a promising cast, but by the end I didn’t much care if our heroic couple lived, died, together or separate. 

                Better luck next time? ….

Read if you liked:
  • eh ... I guess The Innocent?
Next to Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness 


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