In her tale of a fraught lifelong friendship, DiSclafani (The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, 2013) again investigates the power and perils of female sexuality.
Oil-rich 20th-century Houston is the atmospheric setting: in the privileged world Joan Fortier and Cecilia “Cece” Buchanan inhabit, women have little to do besides redecorate their lavish houses, attend meetings of various social clubs, and drunkenly while away the evenings—with or without their businessman husbands—at the Shamrock Hotel’s Cork Club. It’s typical of the power distribution in their relationship that narrator Cece’s first name is also Joan, but she’s gone by her middle name ever since they started kindergarten together in 1937. Now it’s 1957, and Cece is the wife of solid, stable Ray and mother to 3-year-old Tommy, whose failure to talk is her one real concern. But she spends plenty of time worrying over single, scandalous Joan anyway; the girls’ closeness was cemented by the two-plus years Cece lived with the Fortiers after her mother died while she was in high school, and the worrying began when Joan ran away for a year in 1950. Cece can’t understand why Joan yearns for the wider world beyond Texas, and she strives constantly to protect her friend from the consequences of her reckless behavior in censorious Houston. Her obsession with Joan is a source of tension in her marriage, and it’s a problem for the novel too; a predictable pattern emerges of Joan acting out, Cece fussing, and Ray seething. We see that Cece has poured all the emotions stymied by her difficult, critical mother and largely absent father into her feelings for Joan, but after a while her neediness is as frustrating to the reader as to Ray. When Joan’s secret emerges, it’s painful but predictable. Nonetheless, DiSclafani paints a rich portrait of a cloistered society and its damaged inhabitants in a consistently absorbing narrative.
A bit of a sophomore slump, but this talented newcomer’s gifts for characterization and atmosphere are as sharp as ever.