” The locksmith hadn’t arrived until ten, and he hadn’t finished until nearly midnight, far too late for Evie to change her mind about where she was going to sleep. For hours she’d lain awake on the mattress on the living room floor, jumping at the slightest sound. No matter how many times she’d made a circuit of the house, demonstrating to herself that the doors and windows were secure, anxiety had returned the minute she lay down again. ” (Ch.34, p.155)
There Was An Old Woman begins with somehow a grim note: Mina Yetner reads the obituaries in the paper, scouting for the name of one of her neighbors and adding the name in a dated entry to her notebook. The old lady then hears an ambulance and discovers, to her dismay, another neighbor being taken out on a stretcher. This neighbor, Sandra Ferrante, sustaining a liver disease, tells Mina to call her daughter Ginger and says, “Please tell Ginger. Don’t let him in until I’m gone.” This cryptic message brings Evie, Ginger’s sister, to the house of abysmal mess—she is shocked that her alcoholic mother lives in such squalor and clutter.
Evie stood there for a moment, blinking at the ruined gas tank and feeling sick to her stomach. The most benign explanation she could come up with was vandalism. More insidious: sabotage. (Ch.45, p.211)
But there are things that just don’t add up. Evie begins to suspect foul play as she goes through her mother’s belongings. As she investigates who has been hanging out with her mother, she forges a friendship with Mina, who tells her that several homes in the neighborhood have burned, or been sold and torn down. A developer has been buying up all the property on the cheap.
There Was An Old Woman is well-paced, keeping reader engrossed as Evie unearths the truth of her mother’s deterioration and of the neighborhood’ compromise. At the same time, Mina also has her own mysteries. Possessions appear in inexplicable places while other belongings are lost. Her nephew sniffs in her finance and tries to set her up at a senior facility. At about halfway through I know who is behind all the shady undertakings but that doesn’t diminish the thrill of reading how the scheme unfolds. The book is gripping because Ephron’s characters are just real and nuanced. They also provide the link to the past as Ephron blends in historical facts—Mina was the unknown survivor of the fire after a B-25 bomber plane crashed into the north side of the Empire State Building. To me this is more a suspense than mystery, since reader is given information the characters lack, and my anxiety is fueled by the concern for these hapless, disadvantaged characters.
304 pp. William Morrow. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]