The Price of Silence.
Soho Press. 2007. 275 pp.
There's something utterly delicious about watching the characters we love to hate dig themselves further and further into a hole until—hah!—they're stuck. As our disgust grows with each scene, we pray that on the last page they will get what they deserve. Though the resolution of this novel fell a bit short for me, watching the antagonist crumble and crack was as sweet as a bucketful of Rocky Road.
When we first meet Emma, she's a mess. Eaten alive by guilt from the fateful night sixteen years ago when she accidentally killed her daughter, Amy, every ounce of her energy goes toward helping and comforting everyone but herself. Aside from taking outstanding care of her husband, Tom, and son, Josh, an excellent outlet for this urge is her job as an ESL teacher. Mentoring and coaching international students, she struggles to maintain her distance, until one day it becomes impossible.
Something about An-ling strikes a chord in Emma. So when after a brief first encounter, the girl fails to show up for class, Emma finds herself confused and unsettled in equal proportions. Confused because she can't figure out what she did wrong, and unsettled because she can't bear the thought that she may never see An-ling again. She needn't fret, though. Over the next couple of months, they keep running into each other. The author leaves it open to interpretation whether this is intentional or not on An-ling's behalf, which only makes it more intriguing. Emma finds herself strangely drawn to this girl; she reminds her of her daughter, yet she doesn't.
As the women grow closer, Emma's marriage slowly falls apart. Besotted with guilt and misery, Tom cannot cope with his wife's happiness. He grows so disillusioned, at one point he convinces himself that his wife is having a lesbian affair. And so, gripping their son tightly, he slams an ultimatum in her face: lose An-ling, or lose your family. But Emma is far beyond the point where she could be talked to her senses; she's too absorbed in the mother-daughter relationship she never had. And so she goes to live with An-ling instead.
Gradually, it dawns on everyone but Emma that An-ling is not the childlike girl she wants people to believe she is. Maintaining a separate relationship with each person in the Perotti family, An-ling does her best to cover her tracks and ensure it stays that way... or perhaps she doesn't. Playing brilliant mind games with Tom, Josh, and Emma, An-ling weaves a tightly intertwined mess of a plot, where characters sink deeper into their own secrets, causing isolation and separation where there should be togetherness and warmth. Months pass after An-ling's sudden death before the Perottis find their way back to each other, and even then, the reunion isn't complete. It comes as no surprise that Josh—the youngest and wisest out of the Perottis—in the end, is the only one with all the answers. Nor is it surprising that he chooses not to share them. He knows far too well that the only thing keeping his family together is what An-ling referred to as "guilt glue" and that even the slightest hint of truth would rip through them like a raging tsunami, tearing them apart forever.
While several factors work together to make this book compelling, the main things making it stand out in my mind are the multiple perspectives and the skill with which Ms. Trinchieri creates a unique voice for each character. Emma is sweet and heartfelt, Josh is younger and more down to earth, and Tom is pretentious, conveying his thoughts in sentences that make your mind stumble. It's no surprise that once An-ling adds her piece to the puzzle, her voice is right on, too.
While a few things in this story come across as somewhat forced (primarily Tom's role in Amy's death, the underlying causes for An-ling's mental instability, and the religious expressions), overall The Price of Silence left me contented. This is not only due to the imminent fall of the antagonist, but also because the author is wonderfully skilled in the art of building suspense. Subtle hints and clues are sprinkled across the pages of this mystery like jimmies on a perfect cone of frozen yogurt. My favorite was Tom's: "I walked home that afternoon, from 68th Street and Lexington to 112th and Riverside Drive. A long leisurely walk on an unseasonably cold day, the first dry day in weeks. Along the way I came across many useful garbage cans."
Numerous times, Trinchieri withholds key details, but in a good way. She leaves it open to interpretation how the murder was carried out, and for the longest time, whether Emma can be saved from a jail sentence. Later on, Ms. Trinchieri leaves us wondering whether Tom will finally take the guilt pertaining to the death of their daughter off his wife's shoulders, or continue to use her as his emotional pack mule.
Apart from the rapidly shifting viewpoints and the dark secrets, this book is a must-read because of the beauty and flair with which the friendship between Emma and An-ling is crafted. An-ling's fragility, along with Emma's urgent longing, opens the way for a magic bond that only they (and to some extent, Josh) can see. They find tremendous comfort in each other's company, although it's discernable even in the early stages that something about An-ling isn't quite as it should be. But blinded by and brimming over with maternal instinct, Emma never doubts she can help her. What she fails to realize is that An-ling's issues run much deeper than her own.
We learn early that at some point, An-ling tried to take her own life. This, she may or may not be trying to hide from Emma, but we never get a confirmation either way. Of course, keeping in mind the methodical way in which An-ling stages her destructive behavior in the latter part of the novel, the more important question is whether her entire interaction with the Perotti family is a big, staged suicide. This, too, we will never know. The question on its own is far more enthralling than any answer the author could provide. So I admire Ms. Trinchieri for leaving it open.
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