Generally speaking, I don’t find the “is it really sf?” discussion particularly useful or interesting. I’m willing to admit a pretty broad spectrum of different imaginative fiction into the category. But, The Falling Woman really doesn’t feel like sf to me, despite clearly supernatural elements and the fact that the novel is subtitled “a fantasy.”
The Falling Woman is reall a story about a mother and daughter. The mother, Elizabeth Butler, is an archaeologist more in tune with the world of the Classic Maya than modern society (she fancies herself quite the iconoclast, which I found somewhat annoying, but, then again, I know lots of annoying academics who fancy themselves iconoclasts, so the character rang true). The daughter, Diane, reeling from the recent death of her father, heads off to rural Mexico to meet and learn about her estranged mother. Most of the novel concerns this rather mundane, character-based story. Diane learns about the Maya and her mother, and makes friends with some other dig participants and some of the locals. Elizabeth comes to terms with the loss of her daughter and her own anti-social behavior.
As a basic relationship drama between a mother and daughter, the novel is quite good. I’m very intrigued by the Classic Maya and archaeological digs in general (and I have some inkling of the kind of drama that occur therein), so I thought the setting was fascinating, and the writing was solid. The narration alternates between Elizabeth and Diane, and, while I think their voices could have been more different, it was one of the more pleasant reads I’ve encountered in a while. The melodrama runs high – any story that involves a character being committed to a mental institution against their will is pushing the boundaries – but the core relationship still seemed believable and progressed nicely. There’s also a feminist narrative implied by Elizabeth’s back story; she is controlled and damaged by her ex-husband, but Murphy doesn’t really develop this theme very explicitly – in fact, melodramatic as it was, I think this element would have benefitted from more focus.
So, the book is nice enough. But, an award winner? A better sf novel than The Uplift War? Or The Handmaid's Tale? I don’t know. An sf award winner? I’m even less sure about that. The supernatural elements are there, but are they particularly well developed? Are they integral to the story? Not really. If mother-daughter drama at a Mayan archaeological dig sounds interesting to you, I’d certainly recommend this novel. I did enjoy it on that level. Is it a fantasy classic? I really don’t think so.