Out of Time is one of those books that had everything going for it, except conflict. Interesting premise, solid characterization, good writing– but lacking that fundamental tension that gives the reader a reason to keep reading.
Ducking into an antique shop to get out of the rain, Susan Van Dine finds and then steals an old scrapbook, mesmerized by the photos of a lesbian couple and their gang of friends in the 1920s. She takes it home and immediately begins to be haunted by the women, specifically the author Lucy Weir and her lover, Harriet.
The first half of the book is interesting and engaging. Susan’s life is unraveled by the presence of Harriet and Lucy, even as she starts investigating their lives and stories. Taking a leave of absence from her doctorate program, Susan spends more and more time obsessively reading the scrapbook until she literally becomes part of the photos, speaking to and interacting with Harriet and Lucy. Martinac does not write this haunting as something frightening or threatening. These ghosts’ interaction in the real world is instead presented with a style similar to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende. Whether Susan is slowly going crazy or if some terrible event happened to Lucy and Harriet that compels them to seek Susan’s help are open questions that drive the story forward.
Unfortunately, in the second half, Martinac keeps rescuing Susan via plot devices that rob the story of interest. If the first half is an exploration of history and it’s presence in the modern world, the second is a series of lucky and fortuitous events that undermine the conflict and wrap up things that were maybe never meant to be tidy.
Martinac can be commended for not only telling a story of one modern (well, early 1990s) lesbian story, but also shedding light on the lives of lesbians during the first half of the 20th century. However, I wish the story of Susan, Harriet, and Lucy had a little bit less consciousness about it’s place in the historical record and more interest in the storytelling part.