From the very first page of Conscience Point, it's obvious that Madeleine Shaye is writing her story, but to whom is uncertain. It's not a chronological account of her life; rather, it's a twisted tale of messed up relationships and secrets. At the center is Conscience Point, a crumbling mansion with Gothic undertones in rural New York, the estate of the eccentric Ashcroft family: Serena, a matriarch obsessed with her birds; Violet, a hippie-like, free-spirited and mentally unstable artist with a drug and alcohol addiction; and Nick, a handsome charmer with commitment problems.
Author Erica Abeel tells Maddy's story out of order. Readers know right away that Maddy and her adopted daughter, Laila, have been living with Nick for about 8 years. Maddy, a concert pianist and television arts correspondent, and Nick, a struggling book publisher, met when Violet brought Maddy home for a weekend during college. Despite an immediate attraction, they didn't become lovers until much later. Maddy and Nick's relationship seems stable yet fragile at the same time. And all at once, things begin to fall apart. There's a shakeup at the television station, Nick's job troubles make him moody, and Laila is planning to run off to Guatemala to do activist work. Here and there, snippets from the past help readers to see how Maddy's friendship with Violet bloomed and how she and Nick became a couple.
The plot of Conscience Point centers on secrets: why Laila wants to leave the country, the shady circumstances leading to Laila's adoption, what happened to Violet and her grand plan to turn Conscience Point into a commune for artists, and what makes Nick start pulling away from Maddy. Abeel writes about love and betrayal, music and art in a choppy narrative that is difficult to follow. I kept wondering what I was missing, the overarching theme or point she was trying to make, but I couldn't even figure out why I was supposed to care about these characters. While the characters' eccentricities and stories were interesting, I found the characters themselves to be annoying and difficult to like even a little bit. I couldn't see what was so attractive about Nick, Laila seemed whiny and melodramatic, and Maddy was so blind about everything (I figured out the story of Nick's betrayal on page 6).
As I read, I couldn't decide whether I liked the book enough to keep going, and I changed my mind every 10 pages or so. It would shift from difficult to follow, to interesting, to scratching my head, to interesting. If it hadn't been for my desire to learn more about the odd but endearing Violet, I may not have finished the book. Overall, though, I'm glad I read the book, as the twists and turns and uncovered secrets were interesting enough and made the story more understandable. Still, I felt like Abeel was trying to make a point about artists and old money that I just didn't get -- maybe because I have zero in common with these characters? While there was some evolution in Maddy's character by the end, the others didn't change as much as I'd hoped they might, though they stayed true to what I'd seen of them thus far. If you like tales of complicated relationships and Gothic settings and don't mind overly dramatic characters, then I'd encourage you to give this one a try.
Click here to read an excerpt from Conscience Point.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Conscience Point from Unbridled Books and LibraryThing for review purposes.