Dysfunction and danger drive Lisa Unger’s latest thriller

¦ “Heartbroken” by Lisa Unger. Crown/Random House. 384 pages. $24.

By now, readers of my columns know that I view Lisa Unger as one of our foremost younger novelists writing today. She works with, not merely within, the conventions of genre in amazing ways. She probes the psychological dimensions of her characters with tremendous empathy and acumen. Her plotting reminds me of fine architecture, at once functional and esthetically dazzling. On top of all this, she is a superb stylist.

The richness of “Heartbroken” comes from many sources. One of these is the novel’s insights into troubled family dynamics. Another is Ms. Unger’s ability to etch vivid, fully realized characters across the spectrum of age and experience. Yet another is her uncanny skill at mood-building, in this case the several moods of Heart Island, the rampant moodiness of teenagers, the alternating moods — internal and external — of sunlight and storm.

UNGER UNGER Fortyish Kate, gifted by her late Aunt Caroline with not only Caroline’s private journals but also those of Lana, Caroline’s mother, has come through on the other side of her “only-a-mom” existence. She has fashioned a novel rooted in those journals, which hold family secrets, and the book is about to be published.

Reluctantly, Kate is bringing her family for one of the annual trips to the family’s summer home on a private island on a lake in upstate New York. She will try once again to establish a healthy relationship with her harshly judgmental mother, Birdie Burke, who is the human embodiment of the rocky retreat.

Kate’s teenage daughter Chelsea, persuaded that she’ll have fun because she can bring along her promiscuous best friend Lulu, subdues her reluctance. Chelsea’s younger half-brother Brendan has an accident and will come up later with Sean, Brendan’s father. Sean, after a bad year in real estate, has a fantastic new listing to put on the market that will delay his arrival on Heart Island for a day or two. He really doesn’t want to go at all. He and everyone else fear the encounter with the rigid, endlessly disapproving Birdie.

On a separate plot track, readers meet 20ish Emily, a college dropout waitress who is becoming fearful about her relationship with Dean, a no-account slacker who flatters and frightens her into doing his bidding. Disaster strikes when Dean and his friend Brad connive to have Emily assist them in robbing the restaurant where she works. Now they’re on the lam, having seriously injured Carol, the owner, and killed another employee.

Emily had told Dean about a remote lake island where they could hide out. She remembers having had some good times there as a child.

Kate and Emily, then, are headed to the same place. For Kate, the journey carries the heavy weight of obligation; for Emily, it carries a fragile hope of escape and, somewhat irrationally, of redemption. Readers will have to find out why Emily’s last name is Burke.

Though this novel is of average length, it provided astonishingly detailed understandings of many different characters. Over and over again, Ms. Unger defies the convention of employing a single, controlling point of view. We peer deeply into the contrasting psyches and souls of major and minor characters, including, rather surprisingly, Joe Burke, Birdie’s generally absent husband.

Somehow, Ms. Unger makes it all work. Rather than ending up with diffuseness and disorientation, she achieves strange harmonies, modulation and amplification. The journals of Lana and Caroline add two more points of view.

As the tension mounts, the author sets violence of action against violence of emotion, the need to give against the need to control, the pain of betrayal against the capacity for forgiveness. Tempests of all kinds rage across Heart Island, which seems to be populated by ghosts as well as desperate human beings.

In an odd way, “Heartbroken” reminds me of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” not only in its multifaceted exploitation of the island setting, but also in its concerns with nature and nurture.

Whether it’s the island that is haunted or the characters who sojourn there, readers will be haunted for a long time by this profound and heart-pounding thriller. ¦

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2012-06-28 digital edition

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