Soulmates by Jessica Grose is a novel of marriage, meditation, and all the spaces in between—a delicious satire of our feel-good spiritual culture in which a scorned ex-wife tries to puzzle out the pieces of her husband’s mysterious death at a yoga retreat and their life together.
Jessica Grose’s second novel, Soulmates, is not your typical whodunit. Instead, she’s taken a wildly humorous, satirical look at New Age yoga and spiritual practices and woven them into a love story with a mystery at its core.
Dana Morrison hasn’t seen her ex-husband Ethan since he left her five years ago for the lithe, seductive Amaya Walters. She’s mostly over the split, spending her time devoted to making partner at her Manhattan law firm. But when she sees the couple on the cover of the New York Post, she’s in for a rude awakening. They aren’t on it for some brilliant new yoga move they’ve broadcast on their YouTube channel, but instead because of how their lives ended, complete with the headline:
“NAMA-SLAY: YOGA COUPLE FOUND DEAD IN NEW MEXICO CAVE.”
While Dana might have considered herself now married to her work, the shock of this unexpected news catapults her into finding out more. She heads to the Zuni Retreat in New Mexico, intent on finding out for herself exactly what kind of new life Ethan—who went by his spiritual name “Kai” in his later years—was leading and whether his death really was the murder-suicide the police suspected. There, she encounters the leader Yoni (birth name: John Brooks), the charismatic spiritual guru who, along with Amaya, helped seduce Ethan away from city life and an increasingly tense marriage into a world where looking inward is the answer to all of one’s problems.
Dana enters the over-the-top retreat with a chip on her shoulder, determined to be nothing but an observer—yet she can’t quite keep her resolve. She winds up reading a book Ethan wrote about what went wrong in the marriage entitled The End Is the Beginning: A Guide to Peaceful Separation. Though that may sound akin to Gwyneth Paltrow’s “conscious uncoupling,” Ethan’s words give her insights into her marriage she had never considered. Similarly, despite her best intentions, Dana winds up letting her guard down with one particular yoga teacher, Lo, who cracks Dana’s carefully built walls in ways even her sister hasn’t.
Dana still feels unsettled about the exact nature of Ethan’s death—all the more so when a visit with Ethan’s father reveals Yoni’s sinister past. When the retreat offers her a special scholarship only granted to the best students, she jumps on board. This is where the book takes a darker, more fast-paced turn, morphing from a delightfully farcical tale about people with names like “Aspen” who think overpriced retreats, gruel-like vegetarian diets, and being under the guidance of a wise soul at all times will fix them to a world where true danger lurks beneath the chanting and rituals.
Whereas the Dana Grose portrayed in Ethan’s book is an often cold-hearted nag, the Dana we meet on her second visit to New Mexico is searching both for answers to a possible murder and for answers to her own deepest questions about her life—ones she’s willing to fall deeper and deeper under the spell of the retreat’s woo-woo ways to uncover. Without any cell reception, clocks, or directions around this even more isolated retreat space, she’s truly on her own, carefully navigating who she can trust and who might be out to get her.
We sat without speaking for several minutes. My mind raced with memories of Ethan and snippets of what had happened to me since I arrived at the Homestead. I could almost hear the gears of my brain whirring, trying to figure out the subtext to my energy reading and to the mannered language Janus spoke. But it couldn’t be jammed together in any way that told a coherent story. It was like trying to put together Ikea furniture: frustrating, and there was always a piece missing.
The thoughts were so agitating, I was about to jump out of my skin when I was saved by a booming voice. “It is now time for our evening sermon.” I could hear the people at my table moving, so I figured it was okay to lift my head. The voice came from a man in his forties who was wearing lavender and standing at the head of one of the center tables. From a door on the left side of the room, Yoni emerged. He was wearing dark purple instead of lavender, and his white hair was gathered into a shiny bun atop his head. He walked slowly and deliberately until he reached a slightly raised platform at the front of the room. He was still attractive. A silver fox with burnished skin. Even before he opened his mouth, the charisma wafted off of him. You wanted to watch this man—or at least I did. I felt some combination of lust and shame. I was supposed to suspect him, not want him.
Dana finds herself skulking around, trying to navigate both the social cues of a place with enforced silence during certain meals and a highly cliquey social strata complete with tattletales and her quest for closure. One night, she sneaks out to follow her mercurial roommate Willow, discovering the sexual soul at the heart of the yoga-minded:
Finally I saw a tiny flicker of light coming from a small window in the room of one of the classrooms. Cautiously, I looked into the room, hoping no one would be able to see my face in the blackness of the hallway. The room was lit by candles, so it was still dim inside, but I could see a row of decorative samurai swords stacked neatly on the wall. Then, as my eyes adjusted further, I made out twelve men standing naked in a circle. After staring for a few moments I realized they had symbols painted on their torsos. For a second I thought the symbols were marked in blood—maybe carved out with the swords?
Soulmates is a refreshing type of mystery that sends up the minutiae of New Age culture and reflects on why cult leaders can become so powerful while sending Dana on an even more personal quest than the one she think she’s embarked on. Dana is far from a traditional sleuth—and far too close to the victim to be objective—and that’s what makes Soulmates such a sly and engaging read. We get to see various sides of Dana as she makes her way up through the levels of Yoni’s self-created hierarchy.
Grose’s snappy prose, zany characters, and increasingly layered plot make this a perfect read for both cozy mystery fans and those who simply want a refreshingly offbeat modern puzzler.
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Rachel Kramer Bussel is a freelance and erotica writer, and editor of over 50 anthologies, including The Big Book of Orgasms: 69 Sexy Stories; Only You: Erotic Romance for Women; Serving Him: Sexy Stories of Submission and others. She tweets @raquelita and blogs at Lusty Lady.
Read all of Rachel Kramer Bussel's posts for Criminal Element.