three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
49-Nov-Dec-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-Man in the WoodsScott Spencer has written nine novels, including Waking the Dead (1986) and the international best seller Endless Love (1979). Man in the Woods, a psychological thriller, revisits characters from the National Book Award finalist A Ship Made of Paper (2003).

The Story: In A Ship Made of Paper, Kate Ellis struggled with alcoholism; now, in 1999, she is sober, a born-again Christian, and the author of a best-selling self-help book. She has also found happiness with Paul Phillips, a deeply moral carpenter, in upstate New York. But their lives change abruptly when Paul, stopping in a state park after finishing a high-end job, saves a dog abused by his unbalanced owner--and the owner ends up dead. With no witnesses, Paul flees, believing the crime has gone unnoticed. Yet the chance encounter not only burdens Paul and affects his relationship with Kate and her young daughter; it also puts into question his own morality, self-knowledge, manhood, and sense of guilt and redemption--lost and, perhaps, found.
Ecco. 305 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 9780061466557

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"This is a book to savor and read aloud, a book that is variously wise, funny and heartbreaking. ... Man in the Woods is one of the three best novels I've read this year--the others are Laura Lippman's I'd Know You Anywhere and Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad--and if you pressed me, I'd put it at the top of the list." Patrick Anderson

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"One life-altering moment isn't new in fiction, of course, but Spencer makes it fresh, and compelling. ... He brings [his characters] alive through dialogue--internal and external--and a mixture of observations that please, shock and reassure with their honesty." Michele Ross

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The suspense angle propels the action in the book for the most part ... but what Spencer renders most interesting is the way in which a violent act shatters Paul's calm, stoic facade and pricks incessantly at Kate's once-sturdy beliefs. ... The essence of what Spencer is trying to say in Man in the Woods sometimes get a little confusing." Connie Ogle

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The appeal of Man in the Woods comes from its execution--varied characters, sharp, wry observations about America on the cusp of the 21st century and a clever detective-story plot that hangs on that shaggy dog which becomes a favorite of Paul's and Kate's. ... In the current debate over the novel's value as entertainment vs. a deeper interior journey, Man in the Woods falls on the side of the former, but with a smart, knowingly cynical edge." Bob Hoover

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"Spencer is a master of description, but he seems uncertain of his own narrative, and there's a jerky, unsettling rhythm to the dialogue that often unhinges it, ultimately squandering Woods' haunting premise." Leah Greenblatt

Critical Summary

What happens if we're not made to pay for our crimes? This question lies at the heart of Man in the Woods, a psychological and philosophical thriller about belief, guilt, responsibility, love, religion, and the randomness of life. Critics had mostly praise for the novel, with its intelligent plotting, gorgeous prose, powerful and serious tone, vivid characters (especially Kate), and commentary on turn-of-the-century America. A few reviewers thought that Spencer sometimes obscures his own message; others noted some uneven prose and dialogue. But the verdict is in: after reading the book, "you should expect to come out of the woods shaken, and satisfied" (Cleveland Plain Dealer).