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This is Jill Malone’s second novel. Her first, Red Audrey and The Roping, won the Bywater Prize for Fiction, which is how she came to be contracted for this second novel, also published by Bywater Books.
Her characters are sharply drawn. Liv, the hardworking, hard-drinking, hard-playing construction contractor, works for Claire, the single mother of precocious Simon. Claire recently lost her aunt Dee, who nominally wrote the mushroom field guides which Claire ghost-wrote for twenty years. Then there’s Bailey, Liv’s longtime friend. Drake (aka “Julia”) makes the trio a foursome of friends when Liv works for a time converting Drake’s attic space.
The setting is a small town in the U.S. northwest, Spokane, Washington. In Malone’s style, the descriptions are sharp, vivid snapshots delivered in staccato tone. Malone’s familiarity (the author lives in Washington state) with the rhythms and pace of the place are used to excellent effect in both description and dialogue.
Claire and Liv gravitate toward one another, pushing and pulling as magnets are wont to do, both informally committing to caring for Simon as well as each other. It isn’t spoiling the novel to say they do get together. However, that is far from the story here.
Liv and Claire undergo dramatic and steady changes in their approaches to both life and love. Claire and Bailey go into business together. Liv, once finished with the renovations at Claire’s home, moves on to other projects, including the conversion of Drake’s attic space, and getting the notice of a local landlord with multiple buildings.
Each woman, Liv, Claire, and Bailey, also changes her personal and professional goals. Drake does as well, though less so. Liv’s parents, who’ve known since she was a teen about her orientation, see Claire and Simon as good for Liv, and view her history as something she grew up through, not particularly notioned as anything other than any other parents might critique their child’s choices of partners through the years, even to nicknaming them and sharing the stories openly with Claire when the trio of Liv, Claire, and Simon, visit for Thanksgiving. Claire has only letters from her parents to her aunt, dated 20 years earlier, to see that they judged her harshly for having Simon out of wedlock. Reflectively she recognizes how much she has changed.
Liv’s changes are also very apparent. She goes from wanting essentially nameless, numberless one-night stands, to building something substantial with Claire and Simon.
New Year’s Eve for the foursome, without giving away the ending, is certainly an ending, without question. However, disappointingly, the narrative shifts from its previous depth, to surprisingly shallow — as if there is a fresh wound unable to be touched by the writer. In the epilogue it even shifts away from the primary characters’ and utilizes a distant observer in Simon. The characters respond to the events without evidence of the character growth previously built and so clearly demonstrated. And the climactic event revolves around the departure of a character who was barely defined on the page, and certainly not intimately linked to those who react most.
A Field Guide to Deception is a skillful rendition of the birth and continuation of an increasingly healthy relationship between women, both lovers and friends. However, with the utter drop of the ball with constructing the ending arc, I hesitate to mark it great.
A FIELD GUIDE TO DECEPTION: