This one languished on my shelves a long time before I got around to reading it. My loss for putting it off so long. As Doug’s review suggests, any review of this title is fraught with opportunity for bad puns…and it’s tempting, very tempting. There, again, is a pun—the novel is about temptation, and lust, and longing. The real novel is about those urges left unrequited; the story-within-the-story is anything but unrequited. It is not for the squeamish or prurient.
For my money, this has been a too-easily overlooked title—few reviews, few ratings. By implication, it’s one that doesn’t merit much attention, and that’s a shame as it is an incredible work of fiction. What Dowell does well, he does very well.
The story, the real story, is in and of the frame story. What matters most is conveyed in the frame. The framed story (Miss Ethel’s fictive novel) informs the frame. It’s easy to get caught up in the story-within-the-story; that’s why it works. It’s the bulk of the novel—where all the action resides. BUT the frame is where the reader’s concern for the characters will ultimately prevail.
Miss Ethel’s tale—“lives” and “lies”—is every bit as shocking as the title summary (above) suggests. William Faulkner meets Samuel R. Delany; Miss Emily meets Hogg (from the novel of the same name). If your sensibilities aren’t too prudish, if your tastes run toward the brooding melancholy of the Southern Gothic, this is one to be read, reread, passed on (with appropriate disclaimer), and savored like a sweet potato pie.