Much is endearing about "The Tricking of Freya" by Christine Sunley (St. Martin's Press, 352 pages, $25.95), although the main character isn't one of them.
The adult Freya is a bleak woman broken (a little too broken to be believable) by a childhood trauma. Closed off from the world, she lives an almost hermetic life in New York City until being awakened by the discovery of a family secret.
The secret sends her into her past -- where her memories are full of the life she's denied herself, where her childhood shines, her unstable aunt careens between brilliance and deep depression and the secret is subsumed by the rich fabric of her Icelandic heritage.
Sunley is clearly a talented writer. She shows a keen ability to capture a moment and bring it to life. Many of her characters are expertly drawn. And her interest in Iceland is obviously genuine. But she employs several artificial devices that weaken the book.
Much of the narrative is addressed to a cousin Freya has never met, but has decided exists. It's unclear why the icy Freya would so freely unburden herself to this unseen, unknown "Cuz." Many of Freya's letters to her "Dear Cousin" read too much like a Facebook entry to a BFF.
In her zeal to introduce us to all things Icelandic, Sunley does an admirable job of explaining the language, the ingrained Icelandic love of literature, the unique mythology, even the geography. While most of it is interesting enough, she does stray into the role of a linguistic professor. ("A horse is hestur. Unless you're riding on it or hitting it or even just looking at it, in which case it's no longer hestur but simply hest. Take something from a horse and suddenly it spells itself hesti. Walk over to it, presto change-o, you're looking at hests." And she goes on to explain when horse would be hestum, hesta, hesturinn, hestinn and ... well, you get the idea.)
Worse, the book's big secret is kept from Freya alone, long after we readers have figured it out. As for the all's-well-that-ends-on-the-right-medication conclusion? Well, that, too, comes as a surprise to no one but Freya.
Still, despite its flaws, "The Tricking of Freya" is an entertaining read, even if it's Freya, not you, who ends up being tricked.
Connie Nelson is the Home+Garden editor for the Star Tribune.