Owens’s strong fifth novel (after The Measured Man, 1996, etc.) depicts two elderly lovers tying up loose ends and saying good-bye. An interwoven narrative, meanwhile, reveals their lifelong connection.
When Harry Stein, 23, and Ruth Crowder, 17, meet in Saraw, North Carolina, in 1942, they both feel they’ve found their other half. But Harry, a Jewish officer-in-training, is engaged to Gloria, a girl of his own religion and approved of by his family. As a result, he opts not to change course, a choice that stays with him forever. Their passion, however, leaves Ruth pregnant, news that reaches Harry only after he’s married Gloria. Despite universal censure, Ruth is determined to have the child. She refuses to ask Harry for help, but he sends what he can, and she keeps him abreast of their daughter’s progress as well as her own. Their love, now expressed in letters, stays vital. Harry lives off adrenaline as a stockbroker on a meteoric rise to partner and into politics, with a home life punctuated by fidelity crises in his lukewarm marriage. Ruth goes it alone as a single working mother, then marries a soon-to-be-unhinged veteran with a failing farm. In spite of her violent, jealous, drunken husband and the loss of her youngest child in a fire, Ruth blossoms as an entrepreneur and local politician, but Naomi, her daughter by Harry, suffers sustained emotional damage from those years. At Ruth’s 70th birthday party, 52-year-old Naomi is a jumpy mess, furious with her mother, who can’t tell her the secret that might soften her anger, even though Ruth desperately wants to reconnect with Naomi. Harry, now in the final stages of pancreatic cancer, does what he can to bring the two women together and to exorcise his guilt.
A complicated drama, told with compassion and humor.