This paean to female friendship and its pressures over a span of 15 years is a highly readable, but ultimately unsuccessful, melding of Fielding’s two leading interests: endangered women (The First Time, 2000) and criminal endangerment (Don’t Cry Now, 1995, etc.).
It’s 1978 when four toddlers’ mothers christen themselves the Grand Dames at a Cincinnati playground. Chris Malarek is a housewife who spends her days covering for her abusive husband. Vicki Latimer is a rising attorney married to her ex-boyfriend’s father, who’s wealthy, supportive, and distant. Barbara Azinger is a former beauty queen who’s never had an orgasm, though her husband has evidently given plenty of them to his college students. Only Susan Norman seems to have a truly fulfilling marriage to a sympathetic doctor, which she’ll pay for with the thousand traumas her jealous daughter Ariel, the most obviously difficult of the four Grand Dames’ daughters, puts her through. As time marches on, though, all the Dames will pay for every moment of happiness and accomplishment in their lives. Against a lightly-sketched historical background, Fielding socks them with so many tribulations—adulterous spouses, divorces, doubts about their sexual orientation, the loss of their parents, workplace harassment—that it’s fortunate that Vicki has the credentials to fight for the others in court. As the vicissitudes of their lives toss them from happiness to misery and back, their four daughters are growing into very different young woman themselves, often growing away from their mothers. But nothing, it seems, can come between the Dames—until a long-portended murder takes one of them away for good, and provides the ultimate test of the survivors’ friendship.
Lacking the integration of Missing Pieces (1997), this entry breaks in two: an irresistibly sudsy demonstration of the rich impossibilities of being a wife, a mother, and a friend, capped by a schematic, unconvincing whodunit.