Perception is a tricky thing. Do we really remember events as they actually happened, or as we want them to be? And how does our view of something change based on who’s involved?
Alexandra Burt explores those questions in "Shadow Garden" (Berkley, $16), a cautionary tale that shifts narrators as it unspools the story of the Pryor family. Burt will discuss the book Wednesday via BookPeople with fellow Central Texan mystery writer Amy Gentry, author of "Last Woman Standing."
"‘Shadow Garden’ came about for me after the election four years ago," Burt said recently. "I wondered ‘What does money do to people?’ It was a thought experiment. I wanted to see how people would react to what it would take to maintain their way of life. At the same time, I wanted to flip the coin and have readers look at themselves as they see a family implode and how they react."
"Shadow Garden" introduces us to the Pryor family one by one. Each has secrets, and each is damaged.
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We first meet Donna and Edward on their way to Donna’s new home, a condominium in the lavishly appointed development of the title. Donna is recovering from hip surgery, and still confused about the move.
"You’ll be back to your old self in no time," her husband reassures her, reminding her that their housekeeper Marleen will be there each day as she recuperates.
"The truth is our marriage is over and Shadow Garden is my consolation prize," Donna huffs silently. "That’s the gist of it."
Donna spent years perfecting their house back on Hawthorne Court, supporting her husband in his successful medical practice and raising their now-grown daughter, Penelope. She wishes Penelope would call her at Shadow Garden, but then again, Penelope often didn’t do what was expected. There was the time she intentionally sliced her own palm with a bit of broken glass from her dollhouse. And "out of the blue" she raised a plastic fork and slammed it into another child’s forearm at a birthday party.
As the novel progresses, we see the same incidents depicted from different characters’ views, exposing the broken links in this outwardly tight-knit family.
"There’s a destiny for this family, and as hard as they try to keep everything under wraps at all times, they cannot," Burt says. "I believe that the destiny of the Pryor family was a perfect storm."
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As with all good twisty thrillers, to say too much about the plot runs the risk of spoilers. But we see how both Donna’s and Edward’s pursuit of the external markers of success — the perfect house, the debutante party, the high-end plastic surgery practice and the happy family — ends up sinking their chances at the life they want. Both came from humbler means, and transform slowly but inexorably into people desperate to maintain appearances.
"I wanted everyone to play their part," Burt says of writing the episodic chapters, each titled with a different Pryor family member’s name. "As a family, it is never just one person."
This is Burt’s third domestic noir novel, following the bestselling "Remembering Mia" and the Texas-set "The Good Daughter." She credits a voracious appetite for dark reading fare as a child, as well as a real-life tragedy when she was a teenager: A girl was killed less than a mile from where one of Burt’s friends lived. The case remains unsolved.
"In the beginning — I think unconsciously — it stayed with me, in the books I write and in the way I parent," says Burt, whose newest project skews darker yet, into the horror genre. She briefly considered studying police work before becoming a translator and writer. "In that way, I live vicariously through my books, uncovering secrets."