A multigenerational story of two Boston families, one rich, one poor, in the 1940s and '50s.
Caroline Parker, a Boston Brahmin, has earmarked a red wool coat to donate, since her college-aged daughter only wore it for one season. Norah King, an Irish resident of South Boston, brought in to clean Caroline’s floors, gingerly puts aside propriety to ask if she might have it for her own daughter. The request is granted, and the novel branches off to follow Norah home, where it then introduces her nine children and abusive alcoholic husband. It branches again countless times to pursue a bundle of small plots—many of Norah’s children get their own—and to swing back on occasion to Caroline’s daughter, Cordelia, the original owner of the coat, who wishes she had it back. The titular coat pops up here and there with an implied significance the writing can’t quite support. The novel suffers from a matter-of-fact tone: plenty happens, but tragic moments and joyful moments read similarly. As a result, the book has more of the feel of a historic house or neighborhood tour. Carlson is a great collector of historic details. The novel is chockablock with them, and her enthusiasm for the era comes through. Many characters are admirable, and enough of them receive happy outcomes to make the book pleasant on the whole.
Readers with ample time and an interest in the subject matter will find much to occupy them here.