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by Alice Mattison

Pub Date: Sept. 16th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-06-143055-8
Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins

A woman confronts suspicious circumstances surrounding her mother’s death 14 years earlier.

Mattison, known for her unusual structures, has bifurcated her latest novel (The Wedding of the Two-Headed Woman, 2004, etc.), which alternates between 1989 and 2003. In 1989, Con, 45, is babysitting her 70-something mother Gert’s cat in Gert’s Brooklyn apartment while Gert is visiting her friend Marlene. Marlene and Gert’s friendship dates back to World War II, during which, as Con learns from perusing her mother’s old correspondence, Marlene manipulated Gert into investing in a black-market racket run by Marlene’s mobster boyfriend Lou. Con’s husband Jerry, who travels solo to research historical arcana, is visiting Fort Ticonderoga, and Con is miffed that her teen daughter Joanna has accompanied Jerry, who’s never asked Con along on one of his expeditions. The irascible, imperious Marlene calls repeatedly, urging Con to let her assume power of attorney for Gert, who, she claims, is losing her faculties. One night, Marlene informs Con that Gert died in her sleep. In shock, Con overlooks the smoking guns, including Marlene’s failure to call 911, Marlene’s insistence that Con hand over Gert’s financial records, the fact that Marlene, a vet assistant, is handy with a euthanasia needle and especially the fact that Marlene had somehow been appointed Gert’s executor in place of Gert’s two daughters. By 2003, Con recalls these events—except for the profound dislocation wrought by her mother’s death—only in blurred fragments. She’s long divorced from Jerry, and feisty Joanna has won a fellowship to intern with a womanizing sculptor. Marlene, Con’s friend Peggy, Joanna and Jerry (researching an abortive Brooklyn train project) are all converging on her for the weekend. Although Con has forgotten her misgivings about Marlene, Joanna has not. Joanna suspects Marlene did more than merely siphon money from Gert, and she sets out to learn more.

Reconstructing Marlene’s malfeasance makes for a pleasant puzzle, but the real pleasure here is time spent with the less flamboyant characters as they cope with more mundane upsets.