Students' deaths provide the mystery in 'Dead Languages'

In Carol Goodman's debut novel "The Lake of Dead Languages" (Ballantine, 390 pages, $23.95), Jane Hudson returns to her alma mater, the Heart Lake School for Girls, to teach Latin 20 years after she graduated.

Her return to this enclave in the Adirondacks, she endlessly reminds us, is to confront her past and fully realize the tragedy and enduring mystery that have shaped every aspect of her life, including her loveless marriage and shattered sense of self.

This private school, prestigious when Jane was a student, has now become a "sort of last resort for a certain kind of girl." This is partly due to its legend of suicide, which is in full bloom as Jane re-enters.

"From the school's first year, however, there have been mysterious suicides at Heart Lake. I know the harder you try to dispel a legend the more power it gains. It's like Oedipus trying to avoid his fate and running headlong into it at the crossroads. And once I begin to talk about the legend they might ask if there were any suicides when I went to school here. Then I would either have to lie or tell them that during my senior year both my roommates drowned in the lake. I might even find myself telling them that since then I have always felt the lake is waiting for the third girl."

Goodman's novel is thoroughly engaging at its onset, but becomes weighed down a little by its wordy repetition. Much of the plot revolves around the deaths of Jane's childhood friends, a story told by several narrators and then re-examined through excerpts from Jane's journal.

When unexplainable deaths occur among Jane's Latin students, she realizes that suicide and motive aren't always what they seem. It's a mystery shrouded in secrets and guilt among teen-age girls and creatively enriched by Goodman's interweaving of Latin and the classics.

The students have classical names and their eccentricities and setting are given nearly Darwinian descriptions.

The plot twists and the creative conclusion contain the classical and timeless motives of jealousy and revenge. But some readers might find the limited psychological scope of the characters and their agendas a bit suffocating.

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