The mysteries at the core of an adolescent boy’s being are placed in a tender, precious light in Hamilton’s latest triumph (The History of a Prince, 1998, etc.), which also poignantly portrays a mother torn between a lover’s embrace and the family she’s long called her own.
What binds mother and son dramatically together is her e-mail, which her quiet, reasonable 17-year-old Henry has begun to read in secret, upstairs in their Chicago home. It’s not an intentional act, at first, but when he learns that his mom, Beth, a passionate pianist, is having a deeply fulfilling affair with a fellow musician, he reduces himself to snooping almost daily. Henry can’t quite fathom what he views as Beth’s betrayal, even though he does recognize her lover’s way with words; but neither can he bring himself to tell anyone what he knows—not his father, the socialist high-school teacher, not his 13-year-old sister Elvira, a Civil War enactor whom the term “fervent” doesn’t begin to describe, not even his poet friend Karen. Instead, Henry has to deal in his quiet way with what he knows, putting distance and hostility between himself and Beth as a way of masking the pain. Meanwhile, the family’s annual week at a music camp back east has opened Henry’s own eyes to love and desire, as one night with a girl he’s known practically since birth leaves him pining for more. He gets his wish when Lily comes to Chicago to look at colleges, but relations between him and his mother only deteriorate further as her liaison continues, until a shocking incident involving Elvira at the long-awaited Shiloh reenactment forces him to look at his mother in a new light—and forces her to reexamine her commitment to those she loves.
A family drama wonderfully complete in every detail, but most astute and memorable in depicting the quirky brilliance peculiar to teenage thoughts and deeds.