PRIVATE ALTARS by Katherine Mosby


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 Although it is heavy-handed and even downright pretentious at times, this debut novel showcases Mosby's measured, literate style. In 1926, Vienna Daniels leaves a privileged life in New York and marries a man she barely knows, following him to his family's home, the Heights, in Winsville, W.Va., the sort of town where the mayor's wife serves iced tea in champagne glasses. Vienna, an intellectual, is regarded as an aloof snob. When her husband leaves, Vienna, who already has an infant daughter named Willa, learns that she is expecting another child and eventually gives birth to Elliott. She remains legally married and lies to the children about their father, finding solace for a while with Oxford doctoral student Grayson Stepwill Saunder. However, to avoid scandal she must lie and tell the town that he is her cousin. Here the story stalls somewhat as Vienna and Gray murmur to each other in post-coital Latin. In fact, whenever Vienna gets contemplative, as when she compares herself to Medea, it's all too easy for the reader to agree with the townspeople's judgment of her. The children, who are taught at home until finally forced to attend elementary school, are equally supercilious. Of being forced to limit his vocabulary to shorter words in order to avoid ridicule, Elliott says, ``In compositions this makes for staccato sentences that don't scan right. They sound choppy, like when you crenellate the piano keys instead of playing music.'' Thankfully, more space is devoted to the relationships between the family and the community, and Mosby excels at finding the right details. When Vienna is remembering the only divorcÇe she has ever met--and justifying why she is not divorcing her own husband--she recalls their discussion of the Scopes Trial, the woman's liquor flask, and ``her pale, plump hands nervously toying with a silk tassel on one of the pillows on the sofa.'' Occasionally brilliant writing about occasionally annoying characters. (Author tour)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-679-42896-8
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1994


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