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In The Mandrake Root (1975), Cowley slipped too far into sentimental and lyrical goo, but here she gets at least halfway back to the simply affecting power of her first books. James Crawford, a New Zealand farmer, is 58 and dying of leukemia. Sons Eric (taciturn family man) and Dave (skirt-chasing lazybones) react by escalating their never-ending feud over farm chores and modernization plans. Citified daughter Zelda comes home--her marriage is shattered--and, though externally unrecognizable, reassumes the role of sarcastic family peacemaker. And James' wife Mary refuses to accept the disease's inevitability, staying up all night ironing, putting her faith in miracles and herb teas. The dying man himself is perhaps the least convincing figure in this stark, moody domestic landscape--rather too stoical and dignified (all his last energies go into planning a joyous farewell gala), though Cowley wisely lets him be weak enough to not be able to shoot himself and spare the family the last terrible days. And, while some of the tangential moments here resonantly round out the book's shape--Dave's senseless killing of Eric's daughter's pet calf, the robust arrival of James' plainspeaking, ne'er-do-well brother--others are weighted so heavily as to distract (like Dave's foolish pursuit of a classy dancer). Still, the hospital and farm milieus feel absolutely right, and so do almost all of the restrained, lifesized moments that happen in them.

Pub Date: May 12th, 1978
Publisher: Doubleday