In this novel centered on a private school, alliances shift and families change over the course of a decade in a New England community.
Williams (Family Affairs, 1977) follows the adults and children of several families in the fictional Massachusetts town of West Iver from the 1930s to the close of World War II, with an epilogue that brings readers up to date on the characters’ evolutions through the second half of the 20th century. The residents of Parker Farm Road are connected by their WASP status, their committee work and, in particular, their connections to Parker Farm School; the narrative is bookended by two gruesome deaths on school grounds. Most of the principal characters are outsiders, including Vera Oliver, who’s married to a successful lawyer, though she knows her old-money neighbors look down on her humble origins, and Harry Lewis, a Jew, who’s kept on the fringes by his religion. Vera’s organizational abilities and Harry’s financial skills provide them ways into the community’s inner circle, but they maintain an emotional distance from the elite, allowing them to connect with each other and to serve as the novel’s moral center. As West Iver accustoms itself to European refugees, air raid drills and the unfamiliarity of a world where the housekeepers have gone off to work in the munitions factories, the community does its best to protect its own and maintain a united front when tragedy leads to uncomfortable questions. Williams captures the ennui and isolation of an upscale suburb, along with the casual prejudice, social stratification and sense of duty that define the era. But the book, though overly long, isn’t entirely bleak, and the characters, particularly Vera and her daughter Jenny, grow in ways that will be both satisfying to modern readers and plausible within the limits of their world.
A well-constructed novel of mid-20th-century New England that doesn’t intend to inspire nostalgia.