Leavitt’s ungainly sixth novel appears to be an amalgam of transposed autobiography, literary in-talk, and the emphasis on family dynamics that distinguished his early work (The Lost Language of Cranes, 1986, etc.).
His complicated story is narrated in retrospect by Judith “Denny” Denham, secretary and mistress to Ernest Wright, a psychology prof at California’s Wellspring University, and captive piano-playing partner and exploited houseguest of Ernest’s intense, busy wife Nancy. The early chapters feature solid and sometimes amusing writing about college life and how it influences families. But the tale slackens when its serpentine plot—initiated by a volatile 1969 Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the Wrights—kicks off. Tensions surround the Wrights: eldest son Mark flees the draft by moving to Canada; teenaged daughter Daphne sleeps with an older man; Nancy presumably senses Ernest’s adulteries (but neither confides in nor confronts Denny). And 15-year-old Ben Wright, a fledgling poet burdened with multiple insecurities, attracts the possibly improper attention of Nancy’s old friend Anne Armstrong, while playing disciple to Anne’s undisciplined husband Jonah Boyd, a novelist who has the irrational habit of continually losing notebooks containing his work-in-progress. One such loss mars that Thanksgiving Day, and resonates long afterward—as we learn from Denny’s exhaustive account of her reunion (after Nancy has died and Ernest been murdered) with Ben (now himself a successful novelist) and Ben’s disclosure of secrets he has kept since 1969. This all feels like much ado about rather little, and none of it is especially believable. It’s hard not to infer a correlation between this book’s plot and the notoriety that surrounded Leavitt’s third novel, While England Sleeps (1993), allegedly partially plagiarized. That’s about as interesting as Jonah Boyd ever gets.
One hopes the gifted Leavitt is capable of much better work. But the clock is ticking.