Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement. I know, having written one ~ and only one. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of Heaven Falls by Winslow Eliot, a romance with heavy dollops of mystery and intrigue.
Characters: This is the story of single mom Tess Duncan, struggling to pay the bills and raise her 10-year-old daughter Freya in New York City. Tess feels trapped and longs for adventure and romance in the great wide world — until death breaks the restraints holding back the secrets of the past, depositing her and Freya into the multi-million dollar world of Heaven Falls, an exclusive spa and resort for the super-rich.
Tess heads up an interesting, well-characterized cast. Winslow does a terrific job with the character triangle. She shows her characters in all three dimensions — what they say, what they do and what they look like. Here’s Tess, seen through the eyes of Jason, brother of Max who got Tess pregnant with Freya 10 years earlier, then abandoned her, then died in a car wreck.
Her thick brown hair just reached her shoulders, and the unbrushed curls made her look wantonly sexy and sleepily innocent at the same time. The planes of her cheeks were smooth, her gray eyes dreamy behind their sadness.
The cast includes a range of ages from elderly Heaven Falls family matriarch Lucia to 10-year-old Freya, each vividly portrayed and with his or her own agenda.
Here, Freya encounters Lucia:
Hesitating only a moment, she knocked.
“Come in.” A sweet, quavery voice.
Freya pushed open the door and peered inside. Sitting expectantly on a red velvet armchair sat a diminutive, elderly woman. Her white hair fell past her tiny shoulders, which was why, Freya realized now, she’d given such a ghost-like appearance downstairs. Her eyes were black and twinkling.
“Hello.” Freya stepped inside the room. “I’m Freya.”
“I know,” replied the old woman. “I am your great-grandmother Lucia.”
“My great-grandmother!” Freya exclaimed in delight. “I can’t believe how many relatives I’ve discovered recently.”
“Does it make you happy?”
“Of course! I mean, I loved living with Mom and Aunt Cory, but it was kind of lonely.” She looked around. “You have the nicest room!”
In contrast to the dark landing, the room was brightly lit. A colorful quilt covered a low daybed. On the floor were several large satin and velvet floor cushions, dotted with tiny mirrors.
“Please, do sit,” Lucia gestured graciously to the floor pillows. “Do you like it here at Heaven Falls?”
“It’s awesome,” Freya replied, sitting cross-legged on a large, soft cushion. Lucia looked pleased.
“Have you seen the spa yet? All the modern equipment and yoga and so forth puzzle me, but my boys say it is necessary to keep up to date. My idea was simply to offer a place where people could experience real pleasure and peace in nature, far away from the city.”
“So Heaven Falls belongs to you?”
“Yes, it is mine. I’m glad you like it so much.” The elderly woman seemed almost gleeful as she surveyed her great-granddaughter.
So many nice touches ~ “A sweet quavery voice.” “Her eyes were black and twinkling.” Great job on the characters, imho.
Plot: It’s rags to riches to romance via mystery, intrigue, and even some danger. And Heaven Falls features more secrets per square foot than any book I’ve read recently. Some secrets Winslow clues her readers in on. Others we have to learn the hard way, along with Tess, though in hindsight I can see there were a few clues.
When Tess’s beloved Aunt Cory dies, the Garrisons, who own Heaven Falls, reach out to Tess, ostensibly because Freya is a relation, having been fathered by Max Garrison in an abortive relationship with Tess before his death. Mostly for her daughter’s sake, Tess accepts the invitation to live with the wealthy family, though she senses they’re keeping something from her. How right you are, Tess.
Setting: The story mostly takes place at the fabulous resort of Heaven Falls in upper New York State, within view of beautiful mountains — the Adirondacks, I think?
There’s also a trip to Athens, Greece. As she does with her characters, Winslow offers vivid setting descriptions which help readers “see” the story.
She turned off the light and lay on her stomach, gazing out the large window at the early autumnal beauty around. A meadow swept toward mysterious woods at the bottom. Purplish mountains were etched into the dawn sky, looking like hunched, brooding prehistoric monsters.
“…hunched, brooding prehistoric monsters.” Love it.
And here, Tess visits the Parthenon in Greece at night with Costas, a handsome young Greek she meets on her trip.
Up and up the white marble steps they climbed, to the farthest edge of the Parthenon. She felt they were in the center of the galaxy, swathed by the wheeling and spinning stars and the city lights that sprawled below and all around. The full moon was both absorbed and reflected by the pure white of the marble stones.
Winslow’s colorful and even lyrical descriptions give Heaven Falls a lovely rich texture.
What I thought could’ve been done better: Winslow’s writing, accomplished and compelling though it is, could benefit a touch by a little more attention to active voice. For instance, the last line in the preceding description of the Parthenon — “The full moon was both absorbed and reflected by the pure white of the marble stones.” It’s good as is, but putting it in active voice, by taking out the “to be” verb tightens it up just a little:
“The pure white marble stones absorbed and reflected the full moon’s light.” Less words, and you get stones doing something, rather than having something done to them.
Winslow includes plenty of active voice in her narrative, as the sentences just before the one I cited show. As an editor in my day job, however, I’m always looking for ways to tune and tighten.
I will say that Winslow’s occasional lapse into passive voice didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story. And you could also argue that passive voice is called for in situations where the object is more important than the subject.
I struggle with avoiding passive voice in my own writing — another reason I’m sensitive to it. For the same reason, I’m also sensitive to describing with adverbs as Winslow does in this passage:
A blackbird called loudly nearby and she gave a little jump. Then she went resolutely to the huge glass front door.
Ellen, the receptionist, cheerily waved her down the hall, as though Tess had already been working here for many weeks.
Several adverbs here — “loudly,” “resolutely,” and “cheerily.”
Here’s an attempt at the same passage using verbs instead of adverbs.
A blackbird shrieked nearby and she flinched. Then she strode to the huge glass front door.
Ellen, the receptionist, smiled and waved her down the hall, as though Tess had already worked here many weeks.
Getting off adverbs is hard, but I’ve noticed some of my favorite writers, from John Steinbeck to Len Deighton don’t use ’em, at least not much, and their writing is electric. Tom Wolfe is another favorite whom you’ll find favors verbs over adverbs.
It’s exceedingly hard to dispense with adverbs — oops, let me rephrase that — it’s tough to dispense with adverbs, and probably impossible to do it 100 percent, but using verbs instead, where you can, is the next level.
What I thought was good: Got all day? First, I liked the title. Heaven Falls, the resort, is named for a waterfall of the same name on the property. But as a book title, it implies the dissolution of heaven; the destruction of innocence and ideals, and falling to earth.
Lucia reads Tarot in the novel, and the title reminds me of several major arcana Tarot cards including The Fool, preparing to step over the edge of a precipice on the first step of his journey to enlightenment; and The Tower — disruption and catastrophe that brings enlightenment in its wake.
I’ve already mentioned Winslow’s vivid, colorful characters and settings. And though I criticized instances of passive voice, those instances are few. Overall, her writing is clean, crisp, compelling and straight-forward.
The plot is fun with a “fish out of water” middle-class heroine suddenly plunged into wealth and mystery. Dialogue is snappy. It advances the plot and gives insight into characters.
Along with physical settings, Winslow does a wonderful job of revealing her characters’ emotional landscapes.
From her bedroom window Tess could see the branches of silver maples and oaks in the distance turn to torn scraps of ice-colored lace. The fields lay buried under suffocating blankets of snow. Sometimes the skin between her inner winter and the outer one became so thin she could hardly differentiate between them. Then she would force herself to turn back into the room that offered the solidity of four walls.
She could hardly bear to think of what had happened to Nina. Or to wonder who had given Emmy all the inside information about Heaven Falls. The names of past clients…the details about the wardrobes, the aphrodisiacs, the philosophy… And how did she get all those photographs?
Her initial agony over Nina’s attempted suicide lessened to a persistent ache. Her grief turned to anger, toward Ari, toward Heaven Falls, toward Ben – but worst of all was the anger she felt toward herself. She could not forgive herself for not having done something to prevent it. Nina had been depressed: all the symptoms were there. Tess’s own moments of impatience, everything she’d done or said that was slightly selfish or unkind, even a fleeting thought, haunted her unbearably.
It was her fault Nina had wanted to die.
Another thing I enjoyed about the book — A brief discussion of the oil of a particular herb or flower precedes each chapter. The blurbs appear to be drawn from a Heaven Falls publication called “Heaven Falls Essential Oils.”
It’s not spelled out, but I somehow got the sense that these passages are from a book authored by Tess after the events of the novel, when things have settled down. The novel reveals that Tess has some interest and expertise in botany.
Here’s one of the blurbs, which I picked at random.
Nurture. Mimosa’s nurturing qualities appease your worries, fears, and over-sensitivity and lift your spirits to a state of inner repose. It interfaces well with your subconscious mind, enhancing psychic awareness during dreams and visualizations. Use it before going to sleep to induce amazing visions. It will remind you to love – and to truly dream your dreams.
These passages are just a little extra bonus in an already wonderful book.
Overall: Emotional content is the soul of art, and in Heaven Falls Winslow lays the full spectrum out for her readers to experience. Winslow launches her protagonist, and her readers too, on a vivid, colorful, emotional journey in this novel about the destructiveness of secrets and the healing power of love.
Good job, Winslow!
And for a sexy superheroine paranormal sci fi romantic adventure thriller, check out my own novel American Goddesses ~ thanks for visiting Honest Indie!