By a Spider’s Thread, by Laura Lippman: a book discussion

October 25, 2008 at 1:31 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

What a terrific discussion we Usual Suspects enjoyed Tuesday night! There was so much to talk about with regard to the “Bawlamer” allusions liberally sprinkled throughout By a Spider’s Thread,  we were almost late getting to the meat of Laura Lippman’s intricate and fascinating tale. And what a great story this is, full of surprising twists and turns. As Mary Edna pointed out (and weren’t we delighted to have her back among us!), the initial premise seems simple and straightforward, but before long, the reader is drawn into a web of lies, deceit, and startling revelations.

Mark Rubin, a prosperous Orthodox Jewish furrier, hires P.I. Tess Monaghan to find his wife Natalie and their three children. At first, it seems like a simple case of a runaway wife, but gradually, facts come to light that lend the situation a strange, opaque quality. Why did Natalie leave? Why is she in Indiana, a place where neither she nor Mark have any connections? And who is the man schlepping this ad hoc family from motel to fast food joint to laundromat? All very peculiar. At least, at the outset…

Barbara, the group’s fearless – and extremely conscientious – discussion leader got us started by passing around a brochure for Greenmount Cemetery. Like Mount Auburn Cemetery, which we talked about last month in our discussion of The Escher Twist, Greenmount has a fair number of august personages interred within its grounds.

Barbara then launched into a list of place names and retail establishments associated with Baltimore. A goodly number of Usual Suspects members are born and bred in Charm City, and they responded readily when queried about  Bibelot, Hampden, Hutzler’s, and the like.

City Hall, from the Utz Building

City Hall, from the Utz Building

Mount Vernon

Washington Monument, in the Mount Vernon neighborhood

Next, Barbara rattled off some of the Yiddish and Hebrew terms that appear in this novel. It was time  for Pauline and I, the group’s resident Ashkenazim,  to step up to the plate! And in fact, we discussed, among other things, the difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews. This exercise was fun: in particular, I was gratified that the meaning of various Yiddish expressions – shonda, goyim, kibbitz –  so little used of late, has stayed with me.

Ancestors  summoned once again? Oh, yes, yes indeed. I actually listened to the book this time, having read it first when it came out four years ago. Barbara Rosenblatt is a wonderful reader. When she got to Tess’s interview with Natalie’s mother Vera Peters, a Ukrainian immigrant, she really nailed the accent. I gasped out loud: she was channeling my grandmother! (Thanks, Barbara.)

Mary Davidoff Gusman

Mary Davidoff Gusman

We then moved to a discussion of the dramatis personae. By a Spider’s Thread has a large cast, but even the minor characters are fleshed out in an effective manner. The heart of this novel, though, lies in the evolving relationship of Tess Monaghan and Mark Rubin.  Initially, Rubin comes across as rigid and reserved, but as the investigation proceeds, he and Tess have a series of utterly engrossing conversations during which he allows the mask to slip. At such moments, Mark Rubin stands revealed as a troubled, vulnerable man. True, he could be authoritarian, and probably took advantage of the culture’s preference for submissive wives. But he genuinely loves Natalie and the children – especially his eldest son, Isaac.

Isaac is one of my favorite fictional children. What a terrific mix of resourcefulness, loyalty, and just plain gutsiness this kid is!. He may be hundreds of miles from his father, but his determination to be reunited with the parent he adores is unwavering. Isaac’s devotion is the most effective testimony possible to Mark Rubin’s essential goodness.

Tess Monaghan is the daughter of a Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father. At one point, she engages Mark on the question of why he wears a yarmulke (sometimes referred to as a “beanie”  by the uninitiated!). Does he really want all his actions evaluated on the basis of his Jewishness? Here’s the salvo he fires back at Tess:

“‘You like the game you play, shifting between identities, confusing people. With me, you act like a shiksa naif. But I bet when it suits you, when you’re around more unambiguously goyish types, you play the Jew.’

Tess hotly denies that she’s playing at any sort of game, but to herself she admits the truth of Rubin’s observation. (I feel that as a protagonist, Tess has much in common with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, but when I voiced that opinion, no one picked up on it.)

We all agreed that it’s been a real pleasure to watch Laura Lippman grow as a writer over the years. Marge has observed that she’s a great ambassador for Baltimore, and I think that’s very true. What the Dead Know (2007) has won award after award, but IMHO, By a Spider’s Thread is just as good, and just as rewarding a reading experience.

Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman


Addendum: The discussion was running long, so I didn’t get a chance to mention an outstanding project whose goal is nothing less than the preservation of Yiddish literature. Called The National Yiddish Book Center, it was founded in 1980 by MacArthur Fellow Aaron Lansky and is located in Amherst, Massachusetts.

1 Comment

  1. By a Spider’s Thread by Laura Lippman | Ms. Wordopolis Reads said,

    […] reviews appear in Books to the Ceiling and Rhapsody in […]

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