In her seventh, a southern gothic about family secrets (but no mystery), Smith (On Bear Mountain, 2001, etc.) keeps nothing secret for long—and makes some curious authorial choices in her longwinded revelations of who done it, why, and how all the families are intertwined.
Darl Union, a poor little rich girl being raised by her grandmother, Swan Hardigree, a woman as cold and hard as the marble quarry that produces her fortune, has no friends except the granddaughter of Swan’s elegant mulatto assistant, Matilda. One day a stonecutter’s family arrives, and soon enough Darl and the son, Eli Wade, fall in love. Few will be surprised to learn that some generations back there was a love that crossed color lines, and that as a result the Wades, Swan, and Matilda are all related. When Aunt Clara, Swan’s no-good sister (a femme fatale from central casting), arrives demanding money, it’s clear that she’ll come to a bad end. And Darl is there when she does, killed by Grandmother Swan and buried in the Stone Flower Garden. Family loyalty demands that Darl say nothing when Eli’s father is accused of being the one responsible for Clara’s disappearance—and is killed as a result. Twenty-five years later, Darl is a defense lawyer specializing in death penalty cases, trying to appease the guilt that torments her. A mysterious man enters her life and, though she doesn’t recognize Eli, the reader is privy to his secret identity all along. When Darl finally discovers who Eli is, she takes him to the Stone Flower Garden and digs up Clara’s bones, thereby proving his father’s innocence and clearing the way for Eli and her to acknowledge their mutual love.
Clichéd plot and stereotyped characters won’t stand in the way, for those who like them, of the pleasures of a family romance in lush settings.