In Franklin-Willis’ first novel, set in 1985 with backward glances at three decades, a 40-something Southerner struggles to come to grips with his roles as father, son, ex-husband and twin brother.
Ezekiel Cooper was supposed to be the one in his family to make it out of their small working-class community. His mother Lillian, whose own ambitions were thwarted by her first pregnancy, had low expectations for her three daughters, and Ezekiel’s brother Carter was mentally impaired since a childhood bout of encephalitis, but Lillian recognized Ezekiel’s potential and made sure he received a scholarship to the University of Virginia. Twenty years later, Ezekiel works at the elevator plant and lives alone with his dog in a shack in Lillian’s backyard. Divorced from his high-school sweetheart, who has recently remarried, he rarely sees his daughters. And he’s still grief-stricken over Carter’s drowning 10 years earlier. He blames Lillian for Carter’s brief, unhappy life but blames himself for Carter’s accidental death. In a depressed funk, he drives out of town planning to commit suicide. Instead he finds himself heading to the horse-country farm outside Charlottesville, where he lived with Lillian’s cousin Georgia and her wealthy husband Osborne during the happy months he attended college in 1960, before returning home for Christmas. Discovering his mother had placed Carter in a facility, he quit school to take charge of Carter’s care. Now he finds happiness in Virginia again, not to mention potential romance. But then he learns his mother is dying and his older daughter is in emotional crisis, along with his ex-wife. His efforts to balance his own needs with his responsibility to his family are set in relief against Lillian’s memories of being a wife and mother torn between love of family and private yearnings.
Franklin-Willis has a fine touch for the small-town Southern world in which she grew up and an obvious affection for her characters, if anything a surfeit of affection—Ezekiel’s sensitivity strains credibility and wears the reader out.