Women rescue a crushed young wife from a domestic tyrant, in Gibbons’s seventh novel (after On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, 1998).
It’s September 1918, and 22-year-old Mary Oliver is leaving home (Washington, DC) to spend time with her pregnant aunt Maureen in North Carolina. But first some background. In 1875, Nora Ross left husband Toby (Mary’s maternal grandfather) after he became a nudist, going south with their son Troop. The impossible Nora proceeded to wring money out of the wealthy Toby, while vilifying him incessantly and raising Troop to believe in his own entitlement. Troop has become independently rich and a monstrous egotist. By 1918 he has been married for five years to the beautiful but malleable Maureen, from a poor family in Mississippi. The reader must also sort through Mary’s family: her grandparents (two sets), mother Martha (Troop’s half-sister), brother (a suicide), and father (death a mystery). So it’s a relief to reach the less cluttered landscape of Elm City, North Carolina. The smart, self-assured Mary finds that Troop, without harming his wife physically, has reduced her to abject fear and dependency, even hiding her mother’s letters. His subjugation of Maureen has become “a mechanical process.” That’s exactly right: Troop is a dull monster. Time for Mary to go to work. She has Maureen read letters written by her mother’s close friend Judith, who had walked out on her philandering husband and reclaimed her own body and identity through free love. These letters are an awkward device, but their feminist message works like a charm on Maureen; further emboldened by strong support from her mother in yet another letter (cleverly retrieved by Mary), she now stands up to Troop. Despite a stillborn daughter and the influenza epidemic stalking the nation, the future looks bright for Maureen as she heads for Washington with Mary, leaving Troop, for whom appearances are everything, uncharacteristically ranting in the street.
Simplistic and underplotted; the most interesting characters (Mary’s mother, the eccentric grandparents) are confined to the margins.