An intergenerational school project unlocks a Pandora’s box of unsettling truths.
Ann, 70, is aging gracefully in the well-appointed Bryn Mawr home she once shared with her architect husband Theo, who died young of a heart attack. She is still haunted by the death of her daughter Emma at age four, a death, which, she hints at the beginning, she caused. Up to now, Ann has had a perfunctory, holidays-only acquaintance with her young granddaughter, Ellie. Ellie’s father, Ann’s son Tom, a lawyer, is married to Tinsley, an overprotective parent even by today’s standards. When Ellie seeks Ann’s help in compiling a scrapbook of family memories, their relationship blossoms. But digging through musty memorabilia forces Ann to relive the precipitous decline of her once-proud Philadelphia Main Line family. Demented and cancer-ridden, Ann’s mother finished her days in a nursing home after Ann’s father absconded with the family fortune. Ann rebuffed her father’s efforts to explain his conduct, and he died unforgiven. The story alternates between 2010 and 1967, a momentous year when Ann, still nursing infant Tom, is diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoes a mastectomy. That same year, she has a soul-wrenching affair with Peter, a high-school sweetheart she’d never really gotten over. Tinsley, upset that Ann “crossed boundaries” with Ellie by telling her about breast cancer, threatens to stop Ann and Ellie’s “play dates.” If Ann must resort to blackmail to see Ellie, she has the ammunition: proof that Tinsley has been unfaithful to Tom. Ultimately all of Ann’s assumptions about her family history will be upended. But Simmons’ exposition is so sparing—revealing tiny inconsistencies rather than smoking guns—that the book’s resolution is needlessly opaque. The writing is so evocative and detailed in its depiction of the inevitable reckonings that come with age, and of Ann’s subtle, possibly calculated memory slips, that more “explainers” would have been welcome.
Hope at the bottom of the box, not least for more from this talented author.