The narrator of Jane Hamilton's fifth novel (Disobedience, 2000, etc.) is Timothy “Mac” Maciver, a brilliant, scientifically minded fellow growing up in a big Midwestern family, whom we follow from his boyhood in the 1950s to his middle age in the present day.
Mac gradually becomes aware that his beautiful blonde adult “sister” is in fact his father's first wife, Madeline, impaired after a head injury, and lovingly cared for by his father's second wife, Mac's mother, Julia. Mac's dad is a curator at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History; Julia—faintly reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt—is homely, principled and awkward, a promoter of social good. One summer her household includes her own brilliant children: Mac, busily dissecting a chimpanzee brought home by his father; his sister Lu, a dedicated cellist; two black teenagers Julia “rescued” from the ghetto, ill-at-ease and bored stiff in the suburbs; and Madeline. Stirred into this mix is Mac's slightly older and much admired cousin Buddy—a catalyst, hero and beloved black sheep. Physically and socially adept in a way that Mac envies, Buddy immediately puts the family's African-American houseguests at ease. And he not only breaks the nose of a neighbor kid who cruelly takes advantage of Madeline and tries to make a sexual show of her, he conceals the reason for the fight to protect her, and takes the blame. The narrative does not progress rapidly or linearly—it radiates in all directions like a spider's web. The web of connection is perhaps strongest at the most painful moments.
Hamilton is exquisitely observant and unfailingly generous to the characters she creates: every life has weight and dignity.