Book Review: The Glass Forest by Cynthia Swanson

“Ruby?” I said again. “Are you there? Are you alright?”

“No,” Ruby answered in that restrained voice of hers, devoid of emotion and cool as the water in the bay. “No, Aunt Angie, I am no all right.”

There was another pause, and then Ruby said, “Aunt Angie, my father is dead. And my mother has run away.”

The Glass Forest opens with Angie and Paul Glass traveling to the home of their niece, Ruby Glass, following the death of her father, Henry, Paul’s brother, and disappearance of her mother, Silja. There are many unanswered questions about how Henry died and why Silja left without a trace aside from a brief note. Ruby is a quiet, reclusive teenager left to pick up the pieces following this tragedy, though her behavior is unusual given the circumstances.

Not much older than Ruby herself, Angie is a young women and new mother who does her best to shepherd Ruby through this trying time. However she cannot help but notice that certain things just don’t seem right: the unkempt state of the once impressive Glass house, the eerie darkness of the forest that surrounds the property and the lack of emotion from Ruby. It soon becomes clear that there may be more to what Ruby knows, hidden behind that apathetic facade.

I was a misstep on Ruby’s part, not taking care of things sooner. But it’s all right now. Aunt Angie won’t learn any more than Ruby wants her to.

The story alternates between 1960’s Wisconsin, where Ruby, Angie and Paul are working to solve the mystery they are left with, and the early courtship of Ruby’s parents Silja and Henry, beginning in 1942. Silja was an innocent young women in Brooklyn who dreamed of a love like in the movies—pure romantic bliss, love at first sight. So when she is swept off her feet by Henry Glass, a Cary Grant look alike in uniform, she is in awe of her good fortune. They marry quickly and a baby follows not long after. But their early life together is cut short by the war when Henry is sent to fight and from that moment on their lives will be forever altered.

As war is likely to do, it changes people, both mentally and physically, but when Henry returns, Silja is eager to resume life as it was before; however she soon sees how impossible that is. But they carry on, building a life together, though different from the picture perfect scene Silja imagined. Silja finds success in the city and becomes the family breadwinner, shouldering the responsibilities that were generally reserved for men in the 1950s along with her more traditional roles. Resentment and disappointment soon replace love and happiness and Silja begins to wonder if she should have settled for less than her idealistic movie romance.

But sometimes she wondered if he had more affection for the house than he had for either of them. If he might just let them go and stay in Stonekill by himself. Alone in that awful old house—his mistress, that’s how she’d come to think of the place.

So why not do it then? Why not run?

Well, she thought—maybe she would. Maybe one of these days that’s exactly what she’d do.

Meanwhile, Henry spends his days fixated on the political situation and associated Communist scare, subsisting on various odd jobs, the biggest of all constructing the dwelling on the edge of the forest that becomes the fitting setting for the events preceding Henry’s death and Silja’s disappearance.

As the timelines of the two separate narratives slowly converge, tensions build and we begin to see that everyone has their secrets, though none more than the Glass brothers. Angie begins to learn things about her own marriage that parallel the troubles in Silja’s and Henry’s, and the deeper she digs the more she becomes buried by the weight of what she uncovers.

“There’s one more thing, Mrs. Glass,” she said. “The Glass family is chock-full of secrets. Everyone in Stonekill knows that, and it’s one of the reasons few people here care for them.” She crossed her arms, looking down her nose at me. “But you should know that Paul is—always has been—well aware of everything that goes on in the glass fortress out in the woods.”

Literary and atmospheric, The Glass Forest balances history, drama and suspense in unique proportions. When the secrets of the Glass family are revealed, they are no less shocking for their believability—shattering the illusions of the happy marriage and family.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Touchstone Books.

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