Her Glass Heart

By Mary Cantell

OakTara. 200 pages. $16.95.

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Reviewed by Rhonda Dickey

Her Glass Heart is a flawed mystery that nevertheless has a story that keeps the reader going.

The story is set in the Main Line town of St. Davids (spelled with an apostrophe in the book) on the campus of fictional Colton College, in the early 1980s. The heroine, Jordanna Bronson, is a student there.

But her connection to the college goes much deeper. The campus is the former estate of her aunt and uncle, Adelaide and John Colton. It was home for a time to Jordanna and her widowed mother. And it's the site where Jordanna's cousin, Susie, died in a fall just short of Susie's seventh birthday.

A rumor has circulated in the years since Susie's death that it had been a suicide. The rumor deeply distresses Jordanna, who was at the house when Susie died, and who harbors fears she may have suppressed memories of some responsibility in Susie's death. So she's motivated to find out what really happened by more than simple curiosity.

Mary Cantell, who has worked as a local radio and television broadcaster, has the indispensable skill of telling a compelling story. And she nicely depicts the landscape of the early 1980s. Jordanna catches the scent of her mother's splash of Jean Naté. And Jordanna's roommate, Beth, approaches a spooky room with the observation: "I always feel like I'm in an old Shelley Winters movie when I'm up here."

But Cantell's strengths are undercut by a lack of focus and development in the plotting. Much of the first part of the book is taken up with Jordanna's troubled romance with Jeff James. It's a legitimate plotline, but Cantell should have used that part of the book to drop more hints, at least, about Susie and her family to develop and intensify the mystery.

Much worse, the novel suffers from lots of sloppy writing and incorrect word usage. Early in the book, Cantell writes, "Unable to sleep, she recanted the Twenty-Third Psalm over and over." Jordanna undoubtedly recited, not recanted, the Twenty-Third Psalm. A canopy of trees "dispels" light rather than diffusing it. And a sentence like this undercuts the drama: "He quickly rubbed his eyes and then ran them through his hair before plopping them squarely on the table."

But Cantell does have the skill of a storyteller, which is no small thing.

Rhonda Dickey is a former editor at The Inquirer.