Janice Deaner’s “Where Blue Begins” is a novel about a woman who hates jazz, but not in the sense of preferring swing, rock or Bach.
When Lana hears jazz, especially jazz composed and played by her musician husband, Leo, she breaks down completely and runs away from home. Her slight limp worsens, her hands tremble, she can’t catch her breath, her voice becomes inaudible and she is felled by fierce migraines.
The rest of the time, Lana is merely a bit different from other mothers, a pale and delicate writer, spending her afternoons in an armchair, filling notebook after notebook with compositions that are then locked away in the family attic.
There are three children: our 10-year-old narrator Maddie; her slightly older sister Elena; and their small brother Harry, though he plays only a cameo role. Maddie is the star, a spirited, incredibly articulate child desperately eager to discover her mother’s secrets.
When the story begins, the family is living in Manhattan, where Leo gives piano lessons, a dreary, ill-paid occupation that allows him to stay home and look after the household while Lana works on her mysterious opus and suffers strange mood swings.
The year is 1967, and Leo is clearly miserable in his role of house-husband. The term hasn’t even been invented yet, but there he is, cleaning, cooking and doing the laundry, a good 20 years before anyone thought of paternity leave. His domestic role seems permanent, a condition of his marriage to Lana.
One day Leo announces that he’s accepted a job in the music department at Colgate University in the tiny town of Hamilton, N.Y., and despite Lana’s acute consternation, the family moves upstate. Once there, matters go from precarious and peculiar to disastrous and altogether bizarre, a static state in which they remain for 400 of the 423 pages of “Where Blue Begins.”
Increment by minute increment, Maddie uncovers and shares snippets of Lana’s past. She’s assisted by her sister and her new friend, Lizzy, the daughter of the coarse, cruel Garta and her long-vanished lover. This Garta, a cafeteria worker at the university, has become Lana’s only friend in Hamilton, an inexplicable affinity, but then, explanations are in short supply here.
Tempted beyond endurance by their mother’s passion for secrecy, Maddie and Elena finally breach Lana’s locked journals, rationing themselves (and the reader) to a tantalizing fragment at a time, suffering terrible pangs of guilt between each episode.
Lizzy, whose freewheeling imagination hasn’t been dampened by the terrible Garta’s abuse, does her best to fill in the gaps in Lana’s story. For a while, though not indefinitely, these childish fancies console us for the lack of the real thing.
Further distraction is supplied by Lana herself, who, in her rare maternal moments, tells her children a pathetic story about a wounded sparrow and a bear, in which she is clearly the sparrow and father Leo is the bear.
Beyond that, we’re on our own, diligently turning the pages, confident that the next paragraph will break the log jam and tell us why Lana has this pathological hatred of jazz, so we can get on with watching Maddie grow up.
Although that doesn’t quite happen, Maddie introduces us to some memorable eccentrics who live in the surrounding woods. The more appealing of these is Miss Thomas, who has one room filled with birds, another furnished entirely with flowers and a third that appears to be an entire circus of mechanical toys. Miss Thomas also mixes magic potions and casts Sanskrit spells.
The other village legend, Minnie Hart, is a pitiful, mute crone who the girls believe has had her tongue cut out for harboring a Nazi, a fantasy apparently meant to have some symbolic relationship to the rest of the plot, although when their Gothic scenario turns out to be false, that tenuous connection evaporates.
By the time Lana’s secret is finally revealed in all its horrific, graphic entirety, it seems actually redundant and anti-climatic; no small trick in a novel that never had a climax at all.