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The protagonist of Dorba Vinotra’s latest novel is thirteen year old Macie, whose job it is to record everything her charge, eighty seven year old Elizabeth Merry, says.
A former biophysicist, Elizabeth had been exposed to an unknown pathogen which rendered her incapable of functioning in her work as her once brilliant, ordered mind had been fractured. However, valuable, classified scientific data is locked somewhere in there as well, and it very slowly finds its way out in drips and drabs, buried in ten times as much useless minutiae.
After thirteen years of trying to extract anything useful, Uncle Sam finally noticed something interesting. Whole teams of code breakers have worked on deciphering the old woman’s ramblings but only since Macie was hired to care for the spinster’s dogs has Elizabeth been able to remember anything more than fragments.
So, in one of her more lucid moments, she argues for the girl to become her sole scribe, banishing the “haircuts and shirts” altogether, leaving Macie as a sort of go between. Their increased time together begins to yield results. Macie starts becoming aware of how certain smells, like the tea Elizabeth requests only when the time and weather is just so, or places, like the garden gazebo by the pond, seem to stoke her charge’s sleepy intellect.
Eventually patterns in the old woman’s story shards emerge: every other Tuesday, before breakfast, Elizabeth mentions things or people from her time in Austria during the years after WW1. Every other Friday afternoon after lunch she speaks of her time in the British laboratories. Only when the teen starts editing her notes do her charge’s seeming ramblings begin to form cohesive narratives, leading Elizabeth closer to reconstructing her formula.
It seems Macie resembles a childhood friend of Elizabeth’s… was that why she was chosen? Just how much will they allow Macie to learn about whatever important experiments the old woman was conducting all those years ago?
As the government starts piecing together the scientist’s work, enemy forces move in closer, putting Macie in the crosshairs and in a race to recover her charge’s research.
Vinotra has had success with romantic dramas and comedies, with her 2014 All In reaching the top spot on the bestseller lists, but Writing Down Elizabeth marks her first foray into suspense. It’s a seamless transition, the author’s quick paced prose a perfect match for the tension, and her matter of fact style keeps things clear even when they start to unravel. The tense watermelon scene was handled especially deftly, and careful readers will note how she links the peaks and valleys of the plot to fruits and vegetables.
This “gastronomical” style of storytelling makes good use of the author’s other talents: her way with a paintbrush and her way around a kitchen. Both a celebrated artist and a celibate cook (a chef who works exclusively with virgin-by-choice animals, cut by an ordained butcher’s wife on Tuesdays after 11 am), Vinotra blends her passions together wonderfully.
Writing Down Elizabeth is suspense/drama baked to perfection, seasoned with heart and humor and plenty of thrills, putting the author on something of a roll: her last five novels have all cracked the top ten, and a new three-book-deal with Spalms could put her on pace to do a whole lot more than just break records. She’ll obliterate them.
A surefire bestseller, Dorba Vinotra’s latest is recommended.