Though rather too belabored and talky to match the impact of Smiley's impressive Barn Blind
debut (1980), this claustrophobic, deathbed study of an edgy Des Moines family reaffirms her acute feel for silent wounds, thwarted affections, and complex domestic tensions. Ike Robison, 77, is severely ill from heart disease, staying in bed except for occasional trudgings downstairs—and so the three 50-ish Robison daughters have come to gather 'round mother Anna (the novel's central focus) during what seems to be a deathwatch. But family unity is, hardly the result in the 24 hours covered here. The daughters—especially handsome, industrious Claire, who took her late husband's illness "like a pole-vaulter clearing a two-story house"—urge stubborn, tired Anna to move "Daddy" into the living-room, to hire a nurse. Claire and beautiful, cosmopolitan, snobbish Helen continue their everlasting verbal duel. Fat realtor Susanna murmurously bemoans her fate: no children, a husband who left her. And when Helen's young daughter Christine arrives, announcing her imminent divorce, a new subject is up for group discussion. "Her daughters were so unhappy! Was it her fault, after all?" So wonders Anna—but the daughters are the least of her anxieties. She rakes over the past: her strict Mama, her marriage and life with demanding Ike on a failing ranch, her 20-year refusal to let Ike sleep with her (separate rooms, the connecting door tied shut with a stocking). She berates herself: "Why did she fail to rise to the occasion of this illness, every day? Why did she meet every demand with resentment and reluctance. . .?" And through the dead-of-night hours—the novel's best section—the aged couple sleeps hardly at all: Anna is on edge, especially after a weird phone call (her imagination?); Ike's bed is re-made again and again; she rebuffs his wanderings into her room; they bicker and snipe, with an explosion from Anna when Ike says her long-ago friend Elinor "looked like a piece of beef jerky." But the next day, before Ike dies, there'll be a tiny moment—Anna helping Ike in the bathroom—of new closeness: "For the first time in her life, they overlapped." And brand-new widow Anna finally looks ahead, having worked through the "rules" and "demands" of the past. Most of this is quietly splendid, with plainspoken details, a brooding sense of the house itself, and un-gussied-up dialogue. Unfortunately, however, as if afraid that readers will miss the point, Smiley indulges in flat, repetitious summaries of the feelings involved. And even more marring are the daughters' speechy debates—which escalate when Christine much too neatly (Death and Rebirth) discovers that she's pregnant . . and which often make this novel seem like an old-fashioned, contrived stage-play. Flawed work, then, but worthy, honest, and—at its best—wry and sternly moving.
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