Casey (The Half-Life of Happiness, 1998, etc.) revisits Spartina (1989) territory—coastal Rhode Island—to see what his characters have been up to.
Spartina won the National Book Award, and the author turns the spotlight on Elsie Buttrick, mother of infant Rose. Elsie helps take care of old Miss Perry, her former Latin teacher, whose dialogue is sprinkled with poetic and classical allusions. In addition, Elsie is a natural resources officer, greatly concerned with proper stewardship of the marshland and wildlife around South County. Most significant is that she’s an unwed mother—Rose’s father is Dick Pierce, owner of the boat Spartina. Dick’s wife May is understandably unsettled and quietly infuriated by her husband’s infidelity, though eventually she comes to love Rose as dearly as Charlie and Tom, her sons by Dick. Elsie’s sister Sally is married to Jack Aldrich, a slick lawyer and mover and shaker in the community. Over the years he’s slowly been acquiring land for development and has decided that he wants the tract where Dick and May live. Rose eventually becomes a scholarship student at a local school and begins to assert herself through her musical gifts, but she also becomes a fairly unruly adolescent of great concern to her mother. In one tense episode May hears that the Spartina has wrecked, and at first she has no news about her husband. Complicating the issue: On the boat, Jack and Sally’s son is a crewman with little practical experience. (His father had little to teach him because he has always been more comfortable as a poseur, parading about in his nautical blazer at the local country club.) The story moves along at a leisurely pace that allows us to see the complexity and subtlety with which these characters interact. While nothing in the plot is ever quite resolved, the characters ultimately become more self-aware.
Casey writes old-fashioned novels in the best sense—character-driven, thick with dialogue, nuanced and multilayered as they reveal relationships.