Virginia Rich - Nantucket Diet Murders

I really love the island of Nantucket; I've been out each summer for the past 10 years for the deliciously relaxing wine festival they hold by the beach. I also love mystery stories, especially those with unorthodox characters. It seemed a natural for me to give The Nantucket Diet Murders a try.

Virginia Rich was in her later years when she wrote this series - in fact she only finished 3 books before she passed away. Her main character - Eugenia Potter - is a grandmother who is widowed but still quite active and self sufficient. You can feel the realism and warmth that Virginia embued into this character from her own experiences. Genia, as she is known to her friends, maintains an active social life, a keen intellect and a well rounded sense of humor. She understands why one of her friends would want to remarry, but scoffs at the idea that a mature woman "needs" a man to make her complete.

As the name indicates, the book is all about women on diets and the murders that spring up. I am certainly an outspoken foe of the ridiculous body image messages that women are foisted, and I appreciated the basic concept of the book - that being a healthy weight is fine, but to drive yourself to anorexia can quickly lead to death. The main characters schedule in daily walks, exercise sessions, and salad bar lunches to keep themselves as healthy as they can in their not-young bodies. I do appreciate all of that.

However, the book goes a bit overboard on this. The main character - who is generally portrayed as the voice of wisdom and common sense - goes on and on about how "thin!!!" her friends are and how amazingly wonderful this is. She puts down her own weight several times, even though she'd previously been happy with herself. After a while the poor anorexic girl who died seems more to have been a plot device than a real rounded-out situation with depth. In fact the father of the girl dies on page 4 and that's pretty much the last you hear of her. Ironically, at the end there's a soliloquy about how the group of women would incorrectly be portrayed as shallow, rich, beautifully thin people by the media. It's as if the book, while launching itself as against unhealthy body image, then focusses on that topic as integral to every female's life for the entire rest of the book. Genie is constantly examining the looks and bodies of her friends, looking down on the unattractive clothing of another woman, and at times being quite snarky.

On to the characters. Genia's group of friends are for the most part women she grew up with on Nantucket, as they raised their families together. You get Dee the fashion editor. Beth the "pudgy one". Gussie the best friend. Leah the martyr. Mary Lynne the southerner. Mittie the local. Helen the midwesterner. The problem is that all of these women are thrown at you immediately, and are barely distinct from each other beyond their stereotypes. There are many other characters as well, and it becomes a person soup, trying to keep track of who is who and how they are all related. All of them are obsessed with being thin and talk quite a lot about their dead husbands. You get occasional comments about one being in real estate - but apparently she's a leech. Another is working on charity promotions - but she actively bad-mouths her daughter. I am very much for real characters with dimension. However, we ended up with stereotype cut-outs that have flaws that make them in some cases quite unlikeable.

One of the characters I adored, though, was the island herself. Nantucket is an amazing place. It's not a "recreation". It is the real thing. These houses have been there for centuries, built to survive the test of time. The weathered brick, the soft grey shingles, the winding country lanes and long, quiet beaches are an amazing pleasure to visit. I myself love to go there "off season" when you really feel like you are living back in the days of whaling and simpler times. This is the Nantucket the book describes - the quiet lanes, the gentle snowfalls, the stately beauty of the homes. That environment and comfort helped me to overlook some of the other issues with the characters and plot.

It's always hard to talk about the actual plot of a murder story without giving it away. Let me just say that a fair amount of it revolves around all of the women becoming addicted to the men in their lives - which was supposedly what Genie was standing against. It makes out both older women and younger women as becoming silly and brainless as soon as a suave guy came along. It also claims to be for women's financial independence - several of the elderly widows complain about being stuck with a trust fund - but then promptly has almost every one of those women making incredibly unwise financial decisions and explicitly states in several cases that having the "wise benevolence" of the trust was what saved them from financial ruin. Some of the end-book revelations were completely left field, more deus ex machina than wrap-up.

Again, I really enjoyed the premise, I loved the location and I appreciated the elder set of female characters. I thought all of these things had great potential. I just felt that while the book talked the talk, it did NOT walk the walk, and a lot of what they claimed to speak out against was actually woven insidiously into the plot in a completely opposite manner. With Virginia Rich having passed away, I am curious to see if Nancy Pickard (who took over the character in subsequent novels) handled this differently.

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