Two Friends Reunite. One Has a Secret.

GOLDENSEAL,by Maria Hummel

Maria Hummel’s new novel, “Goldenseal,” begins in 1990, when Edith Morgan returns to Los Angeles for the first time in 44 years with a secret for an old friend. Lacey Weber Crane, the pampered only child of German-speaking parents from Prague, is now a recluse in the glamorous hotel the women once owned. She’s so nervous at the thought of Edith’s arrival that she feels “her body betraying her, dampening her armpits, breathing out sour breath.”

Edith and Lacey’s history emerges in flashbacks. The New England camp where they met mostly serves posh city children. Edith “gets a free bunk” because her father serves as the caretaker, and she never fits in. Lacey is also an outsider, a “tall, prim, helpless and pretty” Czech girl who “mouthed the camp’s folk songs and joke songs while the others belted them.” Their differences bind them in friendship until their 20s, when Edith develops a complex relationship with Lacey’s dashing film-producer husband.

Unfortunately, Edith and Lacey gain little complexity as the story progresses. As if to make up for her characters’ flatness, Hummel amply describes some scenic details — for instance, in the revamped hotel, “old Corinthian columns still graced the décor, but the new furniture was bolder and slimmer.” Lacey’s “chair seat was hard white leather. It was like sitting on a car door.”

But the hotel room is less vivid, and that’s where we stay, with two semi-stock characters who soliloquize at each other. This approach might work on film — I could watch André Gregory and Wallace Shawn match wits for much longer than the run time of “My Dinner With André” — but Edith and Lacey sound as if they’re reading the script of a Hollywood melodrama. “So I’m the monster,” Edith says. “In this scenario. And you’re the queen.”

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