The reviews I have read of CELINE seem to be across the spectrum. While the novel is not without its flaws, I suspect that part of the reactive unhappiness it has encountered in some quarters is due to preliminary expectations on the part of readers. At its heart, this book is a character study, with elements of a private detective mystery and pretensions of a political thriller. But it is more concerned with the story of its protagonist, who is wonderfully wrought, as are the other primary and (most of the) secondary characters and the story’s multiple backdrops. The result is a tale that stays with you long after the final page has been turned.
Celine Watkins is a private investigator who specializes in locating missing persons. She is the black sheep heiress of a well-established New England family with more money than God. She is 68 and married to a lovably taciturn and devoted gentleman named Pete, who is always by her side but is never just along for the ride. We initially meet Celine and Pete after a haunting and tragic prologue (which is worth the price of admission all by itself) as Celine undertakes a case at the behest of Gabriela, a woman on the cusp of middle age whose father disappeared over two decades ago.
"CELINE...is shot through with beautiful, addictive prose while creating a multi-dimensional and accessible character. Heller is undeniably a craftsman of the first order..."
The missing man is Paul Lamont, a famous photographer for National Geographic (among other publications) at the time of his disappearance. Lamont had been presumed dead after going missing while on assignment in Yellowstone Park as the result of a wild bear attack. While a great deal of evidence supports that conclusion, there is also much to indicate that it was a rush to judgment. Celine agrees to undertake an investigation into Lamont’s disappearance, notwithstanding her somewhat fragile health and the very, very cold trail that, at first blush, has disappeared over time. She has her own reasons for doing so, which author Peter Heller deals out in a wonderfully piecemeal fashion throughout the book from beginning to end.
The investigation meanders throughout the American northwest, as the reader comes to know the intriguingly complicated Celine and, yes, her husband as well, even as they are shadowed by a somewhat inept operative of (initially) unknown origin who seems more interested in monitoring their investigation than impeding it. At least at first. As Celine and Pete draw closer to the truth, the dissuasion goes from passive to active. While the ultimate motive behind Lamont’s disappearance may be disappointing, the journey to it should be required reading.
CELINE is a complex work that makes some demands --- not the least of which is a major suspension of disbelief with respect to the MacGuffin of the piece --- but is shot through with beautiful, addictive prose while creating a multi-dimensional and accessible character. Heller is undeniably a craftsman of the first order; one cannot experience this novel without coming away with the feeling that this is what writing, reading and character development are meant to be. He also leaves some major questions about his fascinating private investigator unanswered at the end of the book.
This does not mean that CELINE begs for a sequel; the story stands firmly on its own, and some questions, no matter how sincere or important, may never be answered, despite the best of intentions. The heroine of the piece is so well conceived and executed (literally, not figuratively) that it seems a waste to confine her to a single novel. Still, even if we never see her again, this intimate encounter with Celine should be treasured.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 17, 2017