A Depression-era family threatens to disintegrate in this elegant debut.
Three generations live under one roof on Long Island’s Great South Bay. There’s the patriarch, 89-year-old August Scudder; his middle-aged children, Roy and Mavis; and his grandchildren, 19-year-old Nancy and 12-year-old Clayton (their parents are dead). Disasters bookend the novel, which begins in 1937 and pretty much ends a year later. The fireworks-factory explosion at the start kills employees, destroys houses and scares the Scudder household. Nancy, out riding, is thrown from her horse but is unharmed. Another surprise awaits the fearless horsewoman: a chance meeting with a visitor from Boston, a young curator at a natural-history museum. A whirlwind courtship leads to their engagement on his next visit. The family is dismayed. Nancy and Clayton, the orphans, had been inseparable. Now what? Clayton tearfully refuses to go to Boston with his sister. After five years, he feels as rooted in this marshy paradise as his grandfather. Clevidence evokes this presuburban Long Island superbly. She has a painter’s eye and a flair for the striking image. However, she is less assured creating the family. In moving between five viewpoints, she is assembling a jigsaw; though entirely successful with the young siblings, she falters with the older members. Old man Scudder, retired from an early version of the Coastguard, is the linchpin. We’re told of but not shown his authority, and it’s unclear how much his harsh parenting has contributed to the unhappiness of his son Roy, a confirmed bachelor, and that of his equally unhappy daughter Mavis, refugee from a bad marriage, who clings to religion and superstitions. Happiness, we gather, is precarious, even for an exuberant bride like Nancy; death is ubiquitous (a hurricane, the other bookend, will tear the family apart); and God does not exist. That, at least, is Scudder’s conclusion; he lost his faith during a nautical nightmare that will haunt readers as well.
Clevidence’s worldview may be dark, but her future is rosy.