An often beautifully crafted first novel marred by an upscale formulaic plot--one that typically celebrates strong women abandoned by weak men. When husband Vernon leaves Kay and their five children in 1960 because ``he needs to go'' to Europe to find the grave of long-dead love Irene, sensible Kay is devastated. But somehow she keeps the family together in their rambling old farmhouse in upstate New York. She plants her garden, works as a checker at a supermarket, and tries to celebrate the holidays as she and Vernon used to, but the absent husband casts a long shadow--a shadow detailed in subsequent chapters as each child, now grown up, recounts the effects of that abandonment. Eldest son Dean, unhappy in his marriage because he feels responsibility has been thrust upon him too early, has affairs; second son Steve, like his father ``uncomfortable with strangers,'' lives like a hermit in the woods; twin Joe, though hard-working and steady like Mom, hates his meatpacking job but can't quit because he's got too many bills to pay; other twin Paul, who felt his father ``preferred him in some odd way,'' starts drinking heavily as a teenager and never stops; and young Zoe Mae, only three when Dad left, determined to be independent, joins the Coast Guard after high school. As the years pass, Vernon writes occasionally, still trying to explain why he had to leave his family, but he never gets to Europe and the letters eventually stop. Meanwhile, the town declines; Kay grows weary of cultivating her garden; the family grows apart, though they all come together when they learn that Vernon has died. Now they can weep for all their years of deprivation--for that ``intimate act of treason'' their father perpetrated on them. Many vivid details, while the characters, all familiar types, are trapped in a plot as unrelenting as an IRS form. Good writing, bad formula.