Poet/memoirist Barnes’ second novel (Finding Caruso, 2003) traces the impact of a young couple’s impetuous decision to seek a new life in Idaho.
Thomas is a scholarship student in medical school, Helen an undergraduate from a wealthy background, but both dream of a simple existence far from Connecticut. So they buy a farm sight-unseen near the tiny town of Fife and head there in September 1960. Helen is heavily pregnant, Thomas has virtually none of the skills required to rebuild the property’s ruined structures, and the already fraught situation deteriorates after the birth of their daughter Elise. New mother Helen is astonished to find herself desperately lonely, missing the privileged family and lifestyle she once disdained. Thomas spends most of his time fishing, and although he loves her passionately, he can’t bring himself to alter in any way the life that makes him happy and her miserable. Unsurprisingly, Helen finds herself attracted to Manny, the parentless local teen living with them and doing most of the farm work. Helen’s accidental drowning when Elise is just a baby closes the novel’s first half, leaving lasting wounds exposed in Part Two. Sixteen-year-old Elise is home-schooled by Manny, who does everything else around the farm as well, while her father maintains a desultory medical practice and a carefully controlled addiction to Dilaudid. Elise falls in with a preacher’s son, becomes immersed in a hysterical, punitive form of fundamentalism, and winds up in a mental institution after starving herself and trying to scratch out her sinful eyes. Barnes’s beautiful prose and tender characterizations, particularly of the Fife residents who succor the desolate protagonists, are increasingly swamped by lurid, plausibility-straining plot developments. We get the point: Everyone here is bereft in some way, longing for love and seeking to fill the void with various, mostly damaging substitutes. By the time another baby is born under dangerous circumstances in the woods, many readers will be exasperated by the too-neat parallels and overly literary insights.
Resonant with themes of longing and loss, but too self-conscious for its own good.