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The Puzzle Bark Tree    by Stephanie Gertler order for
Puzzle Bark Tree
by Stephanie Gertler
Order:  USA  Can
Signet, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Grace Hammond Barnett and her younger sister Melanie were raised by the family housekeeper Jemma, their parents detached or absent even while in the same house. Grace grew up with a recurring nightmare that she and her sister were drowning while their parents turned away. Though ex-teacher Melanie is in a loving marriage despite having 'sunk from Beowulf to Barney', Grace's husband Adam is fifteen years older than she is and a cardiac surgeon, who cannot deal with matters of the heart outside of his operating theatre. Grace's solace is her beloved teenage daughter Kate.

As this well-crafted story begins (just before Christmas) the elder Hammonds have just committed suicide, and their daughters and Jemma struggle to make sense of it. In the process, they find out about an island log home, never mentioned by their parents, which has been bequeathed to Grace. She sends her husband and Kate on their planned Aspen vacation, and impulsively heads for Sabbath Landing alone. There she meets local fishing guide Luke Keegan, who takes her across the frozen lake to Canterbury island by snowmobile. Grace is shocked by new memories and disclosures of what really happened there when she was three years old.

The suspense builds slowly and the main character engages the reader's sympathy and interest (I especially enjoyed the supportive role of her sister Melanie). Grace is a dancer who teaches children with special needs, a loving mother and sister, who seems to have had a tough deal in life with her arid childhood and sterile marriage. The puzzle bark tree is an elegant device. Like the tree 'growing at a deficit ... because it can't get the nutrients it needs', Grace has survived and adapted. And finally her life's puzzle fits together into a happier picture in this charming, romantic and satisfying tale.

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