First-novelist Donald (“a member of one of America’s families, the Polks”) chronicles the declining power of two blueblood Tennessee families—in a narrative overloaded with obtrusive commentary and a cast of thousands.
Ostensibly a memoir by wheelchair-bound Dan Douglas, a childhood polio victim, the story begins in the late 1920s as Chloe Douglas marries from the family home in Timbuctoo. All the Douglases are there, of course: patriarch Hamilton, his second wife Jane, his six children, and three grandchildren. Also in attendance are Alice and Edward Nash of Cottonwood, connected by only son Seneca’s marriage to free spirit Dartania Douglas. But the main action occurs in Nashborough (read: Nashville), as Donald aspires to write the history of the South as much as a family saga, scanting character development in favor of a parade of events and awkwardly inserting such real-life personalities as the Prince of Wales, who has a one-night fling with Dartania. Jasmine Douglas falls in love with Frank, an angry young artist from the wrong side of the tracks, and Seneca contemplates a political career. Then the Depression hits. The Douglas-owned bank closes; alcoholic Robin Douglas abandons his wife and children; Robin’s elder brother Bayard sells his mansion; Bayard’s chagrined wife Ellen returns to England with adopted son William; and Jasmine runs away to Paris with Frank. The families, still not exactly poor, try to hold on to the old ways despite infidelities, alcoholism over several generations, and a fatal fire. But as William Douglas becomes a Hollywood star and Seneca joins the growing Civil Rights movement, it’s clear that the times are changing both the families and the South. If only the characters’ claims on our attention were as obvious.
Busy and ultimately superficial, for all its serious intentions.