If asked which author I own the most books by (not counting series books or Agatha Christie), Phyllis Whitney would be in the top five. I wouldn’t call her one of the greatest authors ever, and like those of Mary Higgins Clark her books can get a little repetitive if read too close together. Nevertheless, I’ve been picking up her books at sales ever since my mom introduced me to The Red Carnelian years ago. [Is this really the first one I’ve written about on here? I guess I haven’t read one since college.]
In The Flaming Tree, Kelsey Stewart is still trying to recover emotionally months after the car accident that took the life of her three-year-old son and led to her husband divorcing her. She is slowly getting back into her career as a therapist for critically injured children, but has taken a vacation to visit her aunt’s inn in Carmel, California.
Once there, however, her aunt begs her to take on a local case. Ruth Hammond and her son Jody were on a picnic at the point when Jody began playing near the edge. When his mother tried to grab him, they both went over the cliff to the rocks below. Ruth is bedridden but doctors say he will eventually walk again; Jody, however, remains in a vegetative state with brain damage and his father plans to send him away to an institution. Tyler Hammond is a complex man, selfish yet sensitive, and tormented by inner demons from his own childhood. He blames his son for the accident and refuses to see him (Secret Garden, much?). Ruth is cared for by her mother Dora, and Jody by Ruth’s college friend Ginnie. It is she and Ruth’s brother Dennis who convince Kelsey to work with and advocate for Jody, believing that a spark is still present inside him.
Kelsey stands up to Tyler and is given one week to see what she can accomplish, and her combination of nutrition, therapeutic touch, and mental stimulation proves to be effective. (Phyllis Whitney notes in the afterword that this approach was used when her own grandson was in a vegetative state.) Soon Jody is able to move his fingertips and form simple sounds. Larger problems exist in the house, however, and Kelsey believes that the questions need to be answered before Jody and his family can be healed. Why is Denis not allowed to see his sister? Why does Tyler shut himself off in anger and despair? Why did Ruth try to commit suicide? And why will no one talk about the malicious journalist who died a few months ago?
Phyllis Whitney’s later works (this is from 1985) often have a different feel from her early books. Though some elements are consistent, such as the inclusion of a real, detailed setting and information about an interesting hobby (here, Tyler is working on a documentary about the poet Robinson Jeffers). However, her later books seem to have children as a more focal part of the plot (like Feather on the Moon). They also move at a much slower pace. I found myself reading with steady curiosity rather than page-turning intensity, which worked for the situation.
In the first half of the book, the tone is peaceful and ruminative despite the horrible events that have occurred, likely because they happened before the start of the book. There is hope for healing for both Kelsey and the Hammonds. As the story progresses, however, through the calm surface of the lake we see tensions darting about like minnows. The situation in the house contains layer after layer of despair and anger and secrets, blocking out both memory and hope. I have to give Phyllis Whitney credit for the plot twist two thirds of the way through, because it really is unexpected and makes you go back and see the first part of the book in a whole different light. I can’t say that I liked it, however.
Here’s the gist: Ruth basically manipulates everyone around her, and has also been in an incestuous relationship with Dennis since they were young. Tyler has known about this and hoped it would stop when they married, but it didn’t. A few years ago, however, the journalist Francesca saw the two of them together at a resort. With Tyler’s documentary on the brink of success, she decides it’s the perfect time for blackmail. Ruth and Dennis go to talk to her, but when she won’t let up Ruth commands Dennis to murder her. Jody witnessed the entire thing and was threatened to never talk about it. The next day was the picnic on the point.
Ruth secretly has been healed and able to walk, but didn’t want Tyler to know or else he will leave with Jody. When Kelsey begins to catch on, Ruth lures her up to the same cliff and tries to push her over. Dennis had followed to finally to do something right, and in his struggle with Ruth the two siblings fall over the edge and die. Dora fills in the details for them afterwards; she had known a lot, but her devotion to Ruth was her weakness.
Also, let’s talk about the romance. When Kelsey first started to fall for Tyler I thought it an interesting twist, and better than the cliche choice of her getting together with Dennis. The tortured artist can be very attractive, and Kelsey was already emotionally involved with him as they fought over Jody’s rehabilitation. Obviously nothing could come of it, since Tyler was married, so I appreciated the boldness of a suspense book with unrequited love. In reality, that should have been my clue that Ruth had to go. Of course Tyler loved Kelsey in return, for giving him his life and hope back, and had been planning to leave Ruth before the accident made her dependent on him. Ruth conveniently dies, and no one cares much because she was the bad guy anyway. After some time to heal, Kelsey can start a new family with Tyler and Jody, who really likes Kelsey already so everything will be okay.
That poor kid will probably spend a lifetime in therapy about all of this.
I had a very hard time writing about this book. It seemed so fresh and intriguing, but the ending ruined everything for me. Even going back to the beginning to refresh my memory for the review, I saw all the characters differently. I’m really disappointed.
An interesting note: Kelsey’s situation here is similar to Menley’s in Mary Higgins Clark’s Remember Me, also about a woman whose son died when she was in a car accident, but the stories are handled very differently.