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Secrets and murder in haven for the rich

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SET between 1945 and 1957, this American debut novel spins an affecting tale of secrets, loss and betrayal in the lives of two cousins on Martha's Vineyard, an island summer haven for the rich on the northeast coast.

Imagine Revolutionary Road or The Great Gatsby as a murder mystery.

Now based in London, author Liza Klaussmann worked as a journalist for the New York Times for over a decade. She is the great-great-great granddaughter of Herman Melville.

Tigers in Red Weather begins in 1945. Nick and Helena are off to join their husbands after the war. In their youth, the two young women were inseparable every summer at Martha's Vineyard, Nick at her family's estate and Helena at her parents' cottage next door. Sultry and narcissistic, Nick is married to Hughes. Helena is marrying Avery, a wannabe filmmaker in Hollywood.

Flash forward to the 1950s. Helena's marriage flounders and she becomes a prescription-drug junkie. Avery proves to be a charlatan and Helena is hospitalized for her addictions.

The plot thickens when Helena and her weird teenage son Ed move into the family manor, called Tiger House, with Nick, Hughes and their daughter Daisy. Shortly after, Ed and Daisy discover a dead body in the woods. At that point, things start to unravel.

The book is divided into five overlapping narratives written in spare, elegant prose in the voices of the main characters. Each section confronts us with new information that alters our initial impressions, especially Helen and Hughes' stories. The gradual unspooling of the story helps raise the level of suspense and tension.

Throughout the novel, an atmosphere of looming sexuality and moral ambiguity prevails. In fact, we can never quite predict what the characters will do, for none of them, except Daisy, are as they appear to be on the surface. Helena acts the placid, destitute cousin, but is jealous of Nick. Seemingly a model husband, Hughes has a secret past.

The title originates from an old adage about the weather -- "Red sky at night, sailor's delight, red sky in the morning, sailors take warning" -- a reference to the hot, humid summers in Martha's Vineyard. But Klaussmann associates tigers with power as well.

Enamoured of tigers, Nick and Helena's grandfather named his block-long estate Tiger House. During their childhood, he even purchased a bolt of cloth embroidered with tigers. He wanted it sewn into dresses for them, but there wasn't enough fabric, so the dresses were never made.

Just before her annual house party, Nick commandeers the fabric, has a gown made for herself and parades it in front of Helena. Even 12-year-old Daisy notices the cruelty implicit in this aggressive act. "Watching her mother's lips spread over her white teeth ... Daisy felt like she was looking at a panther or some other beast, who had just finished its dinner and was licking its chops in satisfaction. ... Something wild and beautiful and hideous all at the same time."

After ruining the gown in an erotic escapade, she remakes the garment and presents it to Helena as a birthday gift.

In short, Tigers in Red Weather marks a promising debut for Klaussmann. After the first chapter, we somehow know that things will turn out badly between the have and have-not characters, yet it is impossible to resist turning the pages of this novel.

 

Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2012 J9

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