A man on the cusp of marriage to a woman of a mixed racial background struggles with his father’s bigotry and history in this novel.
Cary Hinton meets Cornelia Barber at Centenary College, where he teaches English literature, and eight months later they’re about to be married. On the day of their wedding, Cornelia is set to finally meet her new parents-in-law, but Cary anxiously frets about his father’s reaction to his fiancee’s mixed background: She’s a blend of Portuguese, Irish, Vietnamese, and African-American, and Cary’s father, Fletcher, is an unrepentant racist. Fletcher was once a highly decorated colonel in the Marines, but now he languishes in diminished form in a nursing home, addled with dementia but imperiously intimidating as ever. The meeting between Cornelia and Fletcher is predictably disastrous—he is monstrously insulting, an experience that dredges up both Cary’s old resentments and long-harbored guilt. Fletcher was a merciless martinet as a father and subjected Cary to withering discipline and criticism. Fletcher beat him badly once his abuse was discovered, an episode that forced the colonel into ignominious retirement. Cary joined the military as well—he was also a Marine and served in Beirut with distinction—but left with conflicted emotions, much to his father’s angrily expressed disappointment. Meanwhile, Fletcher is at the center of a controversy in the nursing home—he’s accused of striking his wife, Betsy, now frail in the wake of a stroke. Mustin (The One, 2018, etc.) paints a nuanced picture of racism that’s rich with layers—Fletcher served in Vietnam, only exacerbating the conflict with Cornelia, and Betsy actually has an Indian heritage. The author’s writing can be elegant, even poetic, and artfully captures the tenderness beneath Fletcher’s cantankerous surface: “He felt her hand on his forehead. Then he breathed deeply and found what he’d been seeking, the abyss of darkness beyond dreaming.” The novel’s ending may seem too neatly packaged for some, a trite conclusion incongruent with the complexity that precedes it. Otherwise, this is an intelligent story, carefully crafted.
A poignant tale of recrimination and forgiveness.