This novel seems to exists both within and without of three different genres. Wilde Lake is not a murder mystery exactly (although there are two murders that factor in the plot), nor is it a legal thriller (although the law does play a role in almost all of the story’s sub-plots), nor is it strictly a family drama, despite the fact that the primary story linking all the rest together is about one family’s decisions to keep secrets from one another, no matter the cost. The end result is a book that is is well-written and interesting, but not exactly satisfying to read. The author’s decision to remain vague about what type of primary story she is trying to tell means that the book feels simultaneously incomplete and too long.
In the chapters where Lippman’s novel focuses on present day, it follows the story of widowed state’s attorney Luisa Brant who lives and works in Columbia, Maryland and is set to try a murder case against a homeless man. As she gathers evidence and prepares her case for trial, she discovers connections between the murderer and her family. However, because these chapters are told in the present tense, the story feels cold and two dimensional, since the main character is not able to infuse any background or history into her actions. As the reader, I found the present-day story had no sense of urgency or anticipation, despite being about a murder and the trial of the accused.
In the alternating chapters, Lippman tells the story of the same town, showing it to readers both how it was originally conceived in the 1960’s– as an idealized, utopian suburb free from racial or religious divides — and introducing readers to the Brant family as they were in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when Luisa was a young girl living with her teenager brother, AJ, and their father Andrew Brant, then a prominent lawyer and politician. These chapters have more energy and life to them, and serve to introduce the readers — albeit very, very slowly — to the circumstances that will link the Brant family as they were in the late 1970’s to the murder case Luisa is trying in 2016.
Overall, the novel is enjoyable and Lippman’s writing is interesting and readable, but it falls short of being an exciting or thrilling read. Despite its listing as “mystery fiction,” in the end it seems more of a morose family drama, and a history of the town of Columbia, than a mystery or legal thriller. Good, but not quite as advertised.