Haigh’s perhaps too-carefully orchestrated debut tells the elusive story of one man from the perspectives of the three women he woos, marries, and disappoints.
In 1969, Ken Kimble, chaplain at a Virginia college, deserts his wife Birdie and their two small children. Birdie, a southern magnolia without the steel who’d dropped out of Bible college to marry Ken seven years earlier, is unable to cope and slips into alcoholism. Meanwhile, after a stint of hippie-style wandering, Ken ends up in Florida, where he takes up with Joan. Having recently undergone a mastectomy, the 39-year-old career-driven Jewish journalist from New York feels newly vulnerable and lonely. She never questions the vague nature of Ken’s past or his claim to have a Jewish mother. After their marriage, Ken enters the real-estate business under the patronage of Joan’s uncle, while Joan tries to have a baby despite her doctor’s warning that pregnancy could spur a recurrence of cancer. She suffers a miscarriage, then blames herself for a disastrous visit from Ken’s children during which workaholic Ken shows minimal interest in them. Soon Ken finds himself a widower. In 1979, now a real-estate tycoon in Washington, D.C., Ken rediscovers Dinah, his children’s babysitter back in his Virginia days. An aspiring chef, Dinah, whose sense of self has been marred by facial disfigurement since birth, remembers a moment of genuine kindness she received from Ken during her painful adolescence. After he pays for an operation to remove her birthmark, the much younger Dinah becomes his suddenly beautiful third wife. Fifteen years later, they have a troubled adolescent son and a loveless marriage. But Dinah is stronger than Ken’s previous two wives. She not only survives and prospers after his final disappearing act, but provides solace for all three of his troubled children.
The measured prose and care for detail show a promising talent, but the overscripted characters’ lives feel more literary than lived.