The latest from this prolific novelist (Vigil for a Stranger, 1995, etc.) is an ambitiously structured multigenerational tale about the lives of women in an extended family.
In 1987, Harvard junior Margaret Neal drops out after a fling with a professor leaves her pregnant. After an abortion and a return home, she’s left depressed, listless, and disillusioned. Seeking direction, she turns to eccentric Aunt Nell, whose help provides the springboard for the novel’s journey back through time and generations. We next see Margaret at 14, a pot-smoking punkette alienated from her unhappy parents but intrigued with the adult bickering around Aunt Nell’s Thanksgiving table, 1982. Here, her cousin Heather provides point-of-view, and the reader’s understanding of Heather shifts from the opening section’s negative portrait to a deeper, more sympathetic view. Heather’s father, a professor and stalled writer, is a divorced, superficially cheerful alcoholic, and her mother seems to be on permanent vacation. Troubled younger sister Ann is on permanent probation in increasingly militaristic prep schools. And so the story goes, in chronological reverse back through the decades until 1938, where a sad, pivotal event occurs in the life of the young Nell. A return to the present (1988) features Nell as point-of-view character who takes the story home. In all, Florey offers the viewpoints of nine different women, three of them introduced more than two thirds into the story. Along the way we learn of miscarriages, lesbian affairs, and romantic relationships that reach across generations—all precedents for, or harbingers of, Margaret’s 1987 predicament.
There are many tales in this ambitious book, individually all well told. But the whole will succeed or fail depending on readers’ acceptance of its central device: the reverse chronology being a virtuoso strategy that, like drum solos, may compromise the song.