In “The Vines,” debut author Shelley Nolden has created a story that is part fantasy, part historical fiction, part family drama, and part horror. The tale is centered around the Gettler family, whose roots are German, and a girl named Cora. The youngest son in the Gettler family is Finnegan, a landscape lighting artist who feels a bit like a failure given his family’s long lineage of doctors. His older brother, his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather all worked diligently to create cures for diseases that decimate populations. They did their work on an island In New York, North Brother Island, where a now-shuttered tuberculosis hospital stands. Through a series of flashbacks, we meet all those ancestors as they work to help patients as well as to find cures for diseases. Sounds noble, right?
Nolden unravels the story slowly, as she alternates the 2007 story line with the story of Finn and Lily, his girlfriend, and an earlier story line that begins over a century ago with Finn’s great-grandfather. We learn that Lily’s past includes several close brushes with death, and she’s afraid of commitment because she is afraid of dying young. There is also the fact that Lily is Jewish, and Finn’s grandfather was a Nazi-type German through and through. He was a great believer in pure blood and Aryan superiority. As we get to know Finn’s mother, who is dying from an unusual form of Lyme disease, and several of Finn’s ancestors, who were determined to sacrifice all in their quest for cures for diseases, we must consider many questions about humanity and sacrifice.
We first meet Finn as he kayaks to the island to see what his family has been hiding from him. He’s learned about his family’s research through diaries that were kept, and he wants to know the truth about their history. On the island, abounding with invasive species and buildings that are falling down from decades of neglect, he sees a beautiful young woman whose body is covered in hideous scars. This is Cora, and she has a long history with Finn’s family. A long and sordid history. We learn that his family has used and abused her for longer than anyone can believe. Finn visits the isolated island in 2007, but the story takes us back over a century, to 1902, as we learn about an earlier use of the island and its occupants at that time.
Is the suffering of one permissible in the quest to save many? How many can be sacrificed to save multitudes? Do medical researchers lose some of their humanity through their experimentation on animals and the ultimate death of those animals? And another timely issue is how bigotry and racism is passed down through generations, as we see in the behavior of some of the Gettler men.
While there are many weighty questions to ponder, it’s easy to become completely entwined in Nolden’s writing. The dialogue, the action, and the setting all work together extremely effectively to create a novel that is slow to start but quite difficult to put down by the end. She has done her research well, and we meet Typhoid Mary, who lived on the island for years, and we learn about the hospital’s use as a treatment facility for drug addicts until 1963.The book itself is also a pleasure to read in a quite physical sense, as well. The quality of the paper is unusual, and just turning each page becomes a semi-sensual experience.
Shelley Nolden is writing the sequel to “The Vines,” as she end this first book with a question about the future. It will be interesting to see how the combination of fantasy and science come together in the next book. If the sequel is as good as the first book, it will be worth the wait.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publicist, Over The River Public Relations, for review purposes.