The Legacy (2010) by Kirsten Tranter
It's a little disconcerting that the plot summary on the jacket of The Legacy, and even the tagline on the cover ('what has happened to Ingrid?'), give away key points of the book's plot before you've even begun reading. The blurb describes this as a story about a young Australian woman, Ingrid, who goes missing in New York on 9/11, and the search undertaken by her two best friends, Julia (the narrator) and Ralph, to uncover the truth of what really happened to her. While it's true that this forms the centre of the story, 9/11 - and, therefore, Ingrid's disappearance - doesn't occur until almost 200 pages in. Additionally, the short prologue - the only part of the book narrated by Ingrid rather than Julia - lets the reader in on a secret the other characters are unaware of; that Ingrid's husband, Gil Grey, a much older art dealer, was physically abusive towards her. But prior to Ingrid's disappearance, the narrative concentrates on character-building: establishing the calm, intelligent, sometimes insecure voice of Julia, the background of the protagonists' friendship and family ties, and the love triangle between them.
The Legacy owes a significant debt to a number of other literary works. It's apparently based on The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, which I can't comment much on as I haven't read it (though, on the basis of a brief description, I can see that the basic plot outline and character names in The Legacy are an obvious homage). The structure reminded me strongly of Brideshead Revisited - there's a much-longer-than-the-others Part One covering the trio's idyllic university days and Julia's infatuation with Ralph; Part Two involves a journey and a passionate affair; and Part Three sees the protagonists back in familiar places, though with circumstances much changed, and one character in particular conspicuous by their absence. The character of Ralph is very much like Brideshead's Sebastian, especially when the story touches on his drinking, poor health and erratic behaviour. The style, meanwhile, is a successful blend of two of my favourite modern books: the incredibly effective nostalgia of Part One, along with the exclusive friendship between Julia, Ralph and Ingrid, belongs to the elite collegiate atmosphere of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, while Part Two's depiction of the New York art scene is straight out of What I Loved. Tranter's writing has the same clear, evocative tone as both Tartt's and Hustvedt's prose. The magic is in small observations; occasional shocking events are described briskly in a realistic, no-frills style, and are all the more powerful for it.
There was so much I adored about The Legacy, but top of the list, I think, is Part One and its portrait of Julia, Ralph and Ingrid's days at university. This is a personal weakness, I know, but I found everything about it - from Julia's night shifts in the video shop, to wild drug-fuelled parties, to café rendezvous on rainy days - desperately romantic. There's a quote on the cover from The Guardian, describing the book as 'a seductive contemporary literary thriller'; which is true, but doesn't quite get to the heart of what's good about it, or why you should want to read it. Another review quoted is completely inaccurate, speaking of Tranter's 'gazillion-watt searchlight' (?) and mentioning that the book throws in 'a randy professor, a drugged-up fortune teller and a dominatrix' - actually very minor characters who have little to do with what happens. The story is in fact extremely understated and moves at a sedate (not slow) pace, treading carefully. For some readers, this may translate to 'dull', but for me, The Legacy has an unusually quiet brilliance.
The only problem was that I could never quite understand the mass obsession with Ingrid - why Ralph (who is not only her cousin, but also - as the narrative makes absolutely clear - gay) is in love with her; why Julia is beguiled by her despite the fact that she invades and upsets the balance of Julia and Ralph's close relationship, then abandons it; why the two of them, especially Julia, devote so much energy to digging into her past; why, as Julia says when researching Ingrid's life in New York, there was a need to 'always begin with the assumption that any man who knew her had probably been in love with her'. Tranter tells, rather than shows, the reader that Ingrid is irresistible to everyone she meets, and there is no real evidence to prove why this would be the case. Admittedly, it would be difficult for any writer to do this when Ingrid is largely absent from the story, her absence being the whole point. However, the contrast between the flimsiness of this character and the portrayal of Julia's unrequited love for Ralph - beautiful, unapologetic, and palpably real - is noticeable.
I've said it before, but you know a book's good when, upon finishing it, you feel like going straight back to the beginning and starting all over again. I borrowed this from the library and have been frantically hunting for a cheap copy so I can have one of my own before I have to take it back. I can see why The Legacy won't be a hit with everyone; I can see why some might find it boring. But I loved it (and I am already waiting impatiently for the author's future work). Despite a couple of flaws, this is a book I can't stop thinking about and it's firmly on my list of favourites for 2011 - if you loved any of the books I've referenced in this review, particularly the modern novels, you should give it a try.