17 Apr 2014
I which I betray a liking for cozy mysteries and thereby revoke my mancard.
Aunt Dimity and the Wishing Well. Nancy Atherton. Viking. $25.95.
Light and dark. Sweet and sour. Night and day. Work and rest. Life is best lived by moving through contrasts, enjoying each in turn. We derive pleasure from experiencing changes, and when we’re sated, we can only wait for the renewal of desire.
Which is a roundabout way of anticipating criticism for saying that I liked “Aunt Dimity and the Wishing Well.” Fiction, we’re told repeatedly, are supposed to teach us, make us more empathetic, show us a new way of viewing the world. In other words, the puritans in intellectual clothing warn us, we are fallen and must mend our ways, and Gaia forbid that we praise a book for being entertaining.
It doesn’t help matters that Nancy Atherton’s mystery story is set in a paradisiacal English village overseen by a ghost full of sound advice, a spectral Dear Abby if you will. In the small Cotswold village of Finch, everyone knows everyone and their business. No one seems to work for a major corporation or has to commute long distances to go to work. There’s the owner of the tea shop, the riding academy, a lawyer, the local businesswoman who owns several businesses, the vicar and a mother, Lori Shepherd, who narrates the stories. There are retirees and semi-retirees who still keep their hand in.
Then there’s Aunt Dimity. She extraordinary because she’s dead, and she talks with Lori with the help of a blue notebook in which she writes. Lori keeps the notebook next to a stuffed rabbit that is sort of her talisman.
Even for cozies, sounds awfully twee, but bear with me for a moment.
“Wishing Well” opens with the funeral for a quiet man who kept himself to himself and never got to know the villagers very well. At the graveside, the residents are surprised at the late arrival of a personable young nephew from Australia. Charged with fixing up the place for sale and to deal with his uncle’s memoir, he is the focus of everyone’s curiosity, particularly when clean-up begins on the overgrown yard and reveals an unusual wishing well. Not surprisingly, wishes are made and, surprisingly, many of them are granted.
And that’s where the fun kicks in, because while the village can be a paradise, the villagers are not. There’s jealousy, meanness, and pettiness, and the well’s gifts sometimes come with a sting attached.
“Wishing Well” is an easy book to sneer at as a comfort read. I supposed some people sneer at sleep, but we need it, too. Reading “Wishing Well” got me into bed, under the reading lamp, early on a Friday evening. The wife was downstairs reading about resource depletion on the computer, and the kids were safely occupied. For awhile, my life and its concerns faded while I roamed with Lori and Aunt Dimity, seeing the villagers discover that not all wishes are golden, and learning who was behind them and why.
So I admit it. When I closed the book, its tale told, I felt more at ease with the world. What more could I want?