Thompson (She Poured out Her Heart, 2016, etc.) constructs her latest novel around the parallel themes and variations in the unhappy lives of three generations of women in an unnamed Midwestern college town.
Pillar-of-the-community Evelyn, her frazzled, overstretched daughter, Laura, and Laura’s independent-minded daughter, Grace, appear to have little in common, but when scrutinized in separate sections, their lives follow an alarmingly similar pattern of deferring dreams for disappointing men. As a young woman, Evelyn has serious academic ambitions and is working toward a Ph.D. when World War II ends. Then she falls into a love affair with Rusty, a veteran who's attending college on the GI Bill but has no interest in academia. He’s left town to return to farming before Evelyn realizes she’s pregnant. In desperation she quickly manipulates straight-laced and clueless Andrew, a smitten law professor, into marrying her. Ironically, she miscarries. She considers leaving Andrew but doesn’t, for reasons left unexplained. Instead, she commits to her marriage and eventual children but never quite overcomes her unrealized academic aspirations. Laura, who considers Evelyn “detached,” lacks her mother’s career ambitions and is perhaps too attached. She loves her computer-whiz husband, Gabe, but early in their marriage, his off-putting behavior alienates her friends. In her loneliness, she carries on a short, passionate affair with her brother’s former high school friend Bob, a car mechanic. Grace is the result. As Laura trudges on in her marriage, she carries the weight of care for the dying Evelyn, increasingly alcoholic Gabe, and Grace’s younger brother, Michael, a talented musician with addiction issues. By the time family crises turn tragic, Grace has not yet defined her career or romantic ambitions. She falls into an affair with an inappropriate man who, unlike Bob or Rusty, is genuinely creepy; fortunately, 25-year-old Grace avoids pregnancy. She also stumbles upon family secrets and begins to imagine a future with possibilities.
Thompson, who wrote movingly about another Midwestern family in The Year We left Home (2011), here creates a plot and characters that feel more diagrammed than lived.