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Not all fun and games: Emily Arsenault’s new mystery probes aftermath of amusement park accident

  • Emily Arsenault's new mystery, “All the Pretty Things,” is the Shelburne Falls author’s eighth novel and second Young Adult title.

  • Emily Arsenault has written six adult mysteries. Photo by Ross Grant/courtesy of Emily Arsenault

  • Arsenault’s most recent adult mystery was 2018’s “The Last Thing I told You.”



Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Since publishing her first book about 10 years ago, Shelburne Falls novelist Emily Arsenault has carved out a niche as a mystery writer who favors dialogue, atmosphere and slow-cooking plots rather than pumped-up action. She has often built her stories, in part, around personal interests, from reading tea leaves to working for a dictionary publisher.

But for her newest book, “All the Pretty Things,” Arsenault found some initial inspiration after watching an interview with Ivanka Trump in early 2017.

It was an odd conversation, Arsenault writes on her website, in which Donald Trump’s oldest daughter, who “seemed to me like a strange, beautiful doll with a pull string,” answered reporters’ questions with programmed-sounding responses that essentially said nothing.

“I wondered what she could possibly be thinking beneath all of that perfect hair and makeup … [and] what it must have been like for her to grow up with a father like hers,” she writes.

“All the Pretty Things,” Arsenault’s eighth novel, is also her second Young Adult title; the story’s central character is 17-year-old Ivy Cork, who’s spending the summer working at her father’s amusement park, Fabuland, in New Hampshire.

But just as summer begins, tragedy strikes: One of Ivy’s co-workers, Ethan, a 19-year-old teen with Down syndrome, is found dead beneath an old train trestle, which he was apparently crossing as he was heading home from the park.

And the person who discovered Ethan’s body — Ivy’s best friend, Morgan — has suddenly gone missing. A day later, Morgan is discovered, deeply upset — possibly suicidal — at the top of the Ferris wheel in Fabuland, and Ivy is called on to talk her down.

But when Ivy asks her friend why she’s up there, Morgan offers a cryptic response: “Ask Ethan.” That sends Ivy on a quest to try and discover what happened to Ethan, which leads her to some unsettling secrets, as coworkers and friends seem to be withholding information about his last night in the amusement park.

But “All the Pretty Things” also examines the relationship between Ivy and her energetic but mercurial father, and she eventually must come to grips with the difficult dynamics of her family — parents divorced, older brother away for the summer and seemingly estranged from their father — making the novel both a teen whodunit and a story of Ivy’s self-discovery.

In a recent phone call, Arsenault said her musings on Ivanka Trump’s relationship to her father led to a larger theme of what it might be like to grow up with a narcissistic parent, which in turn made a YA novel a more sensible format for the story.

She also thought setting her new mystery in and around an amusement park would speak to her own conflicted feelings about them, as places that offer a kind of “forced fun” and have their share of darkness.

“I would go to them with my friends when I was younger, and I always found them kind of strange in a way,” she said with a laugh. “There’s the bad food that’s sold there and the rides that can make you ill, like when you’re turned upside down.”

Though Arsenault said she hasn’t based her new book on her own experiences, she gives Ivy her own sense of ambivalence about working in Fabuland. She’s a dutiful daughter, trying to please her single-minded father (she also had worked in his previous business, a doughnut shop), but working there is not exactly her first choice.

When a coworker asks her if her father is grooming her to take over the business, Ivy’s droll thought is that her “worst nightmare” is ending up in charge of the park “as a middle-aged lady, toothless from too much cotton candy … I believe this nightmare began precisely when I heard my brother wouldn’t be coming home this summer.”

Arsenault weaves bits of this wry humor through the story, contrasting her father’s obsession with the park — at one point he insists on creating a giant doughnut as a special attraction — with the eye-rolling young people who work there.

She’s particularly good at portraying some of the more acidic comments that teens can exchange and the insecurities they can feel. Ivy wonders if the hostile or wary vibes she sometimes picks up from a few coworkers are because “a lot of people don’t know how they’re supposed to feel about the boss’s daughter. Even I don’t know how I feel about it most of the time.”

And, notes Arsenault, “Ivy knows that so many ideas her father has about the business are absurd, but she still has to take them seriously. He expects her to be an enthusiastic team player.”

Ivy also sometimes has to do damage control for her father, who has a short fuse and a certain lack of grace, as when he comes barging into a dressing room where Ivy and a few other young women are putting on costumes for a themed parade in Fabuland, one of her father’s promotional ideas. “Jesus, dad. The girls were changing in there,” Ivy says in disbelief.

And Ivy feels her father, though he can be kind, too often takes her for granted, as he “doesn’t really concern himself with certain details of my life — friends, teacher’s names, after-school activities. As long as I have good grades, win awards, and show up for Doughnut Dynasty and Fabuland shifts, the rest is background noise.”

As Ivy tries to unravel what happened to Ethan, some of her fellow teens react with annoyance or even hostility, accusing her of trying to create controversy and bringing renewed pain to people who were close to Ethan. Morgan isn’t talking to her, either. And her brother, Jason, in phone calls and texts, raises questions about whether their father is cutting corners on safety at the park.

Ivy finds herself increasingly isolated and stressed. “She’s in a difficult place,” said Arsenault. “And along the way, she’ll have to learn some more about herself and just where she stands with her father.”

The author, who’s in her early 40s, is now working on a new YA title, though she and her husband are also spending a lot of time these days with their 8-year-old daughter, forced home like other schoolchildren because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Arsenault’s reading events at bookstores for “All the Pretty Things” were all canceled.)

Arsenault has been drawn to YA books of late, she says, because the emotions from her own high school days “still seem so vivid in a lot of ways. There are so many things I remember — not necessarily happy memories — that still make for story possibilities.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. Emily Arsenault’s website is emilyarsenault.com.