Memories of growing-up in a well-to-do, well-bred Long Island family through the Forties--with evocative but unshaped...



Memories of growing-up in a well-to-do, well-bred Long Island family through the Forties--with evocative but unshaped glimmers of family secrets, marital tensions, and serious disturbances below the WASP-y surfaces. Peter Kempton's reminiscences first go back to 1939, when he was ten and listened (on trips to aged grandma in Massachusetts) to his mother Sarah's stories of family history: the 1880s triumph of eccentric Grandfather Starcliffe, a pioneer of electrical technology; the troubles that came when Sarah's cold brother Arthur took over the family company; the courtship between Sarah and young, poor Henry Kempton (his father lost everything in a failed marble quarry)--with fisticuffs between Henry and snooty Arthur, who would forever be disgusted by Henry's ties to a flashy Wall Street mentor, Peter Stimson (the narrator's godfather). Then, in the Forties, the recollections focus on the Long Island family itself: father Henry's continued, materialistic devotion to boss/neighbor Stimson, an affable master of ostentation; mother Sarah's yearning for more artistic, sensitive pleasures; the rebellion of Peter's older brother Randy against Henry's stinginess; Peter's own isolation from his parents, finding his confidants in a German nanny and in godfather ""Stim."" And then--after Peter's prep-school growth (friends, athletics), Harvard, and the unheroic death of Randy overseas--the family's ""false premises"" will be bared: Henry divorces Sarah and remarries, confirming Peter's half-awareness of adultery years before; Sarah goes to Paris but plummets into mental illness; and, most effectively, Uncle Arthur's longtime prejudices are shown to have been something more than small-minded snobbery. (Likewise, his sins against Grandfather Starcliffe are seen in a new light.) Unfortunately, however, though Knowlton structures this loss-of-innocence novel in an intelligent, traditional fashion, Peter's creeping realizations aren't surprising or convincing enough to be affecting. (Sarah's breakdown is especially ill-prepared.) And while the Uncle Arthur relationship is distinctive, it doesn't receive enough focus in Peter's too-unselective, rather blurry family portrait. Still, though lacking the power and pathos of such similar novels as George R. Clay's Family Occasions (1978), this is civilized, atmospheric, low-key reminiscence--with some of the appeal of autobiography, if little of the strength of fiction.

Pub Date: May 24, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1983