Acoming-of-age story and a family saga fit comfortably together in this overstuffed easy chair of a novel.
The form of the novel is familiar enough—a sprawling narrative focusing on one fateful summer in the life of a family—but its plot and narrative tone are more complex than usual for the genre. In a small town in Michigan in 1928, the Bearwald family—distinguished father, vibrant mother and two young adult daughters—comes undone. The upright and respected owners of a clothing store, the Bearwalds are the only Jewish family in their town, and the only family with an autistic daughter. Their oldest girl, Cleo, is clever but erratic, and the youngest, narrator Rebecca, is responsible and dependable. Although the family seems solid, the summer’s events show that the relationship of mutual caretaking between the daughters is the glue that holds everyone together. Once the sisters go their own ways, the family falls apart. How they become individuals is the most unlikely aspect of the story: A bootlegger’s ship runs aground after a late-night shootout, Cleo restores it and sells the illegal liquor she finds on it. Meanwhile, Cleo’s mother, tired of being a country mouse, leads people to believe that her husband heads a bootlegging gang, thus provoking retaliation from actual bootleggers. What really sustains this is not the Byzantine plot, but the precisely drawn motives behind the characters’ actions. Just when it seems as though the author will have all the loose ends tied up, he lingers with painful clarity on the dynamics of the family: the way that Mrs. Bearwald’s desire for excitement leads to shameful social performances, the way that Rebecca’s desire for freedom manifests itself in her declaration that her beloved sister Cleo is so sick as to be outside the social order. The depiction of the Bearwalds’ evolution as people and as a family is pitch-perfect.
A slow-paced, satisfying read.