Canadian den Hartog’s first novel comes after the American publication of her second (The Perpetual Ending, p. 8) and is again about independent sisters and their pretty but vapid mother bereft of husband.
In lovely if lightweight prose, den Hartog introduces Hannah and Vivian in their own voices as they make their way back to their small hometown three hours from Ottawa. It’s the eve of their mother Darlene’s second marriage to the local shoe-store owner. Long-haired and eternally youthful, Darlene provides a kind of cotton-candy center to the family’s thread of earnest anecdotes, beginning with first husband Mick’s having walked out when the girls were nearly adolescent. A free spirit and lover of nature, Mick was sorely missed by his two daughters and their mother, who never quite got over his departure, though her chronic philandering couldn’t bring him back, either. Still, now, living close by are Darlene’s sister, Angie, solicitous and often spitefully envious, and her ethereal only daughter Wren, born with webbed feet. Den Hartog works by long-winded flashbacks, pursuing over the years the growing into womanhood of the two sisters who are never quite right for the town and can’t wait to leave. Along the way are Darlene’s intermittent new boyfriends (fleshy scientist Uncle Tim, for example, whom the girls hate) and Mick’s untimely death, while Wren, considered a kind of freak, tries to find friendship in the Brownies. Finally, Darlene’s wedding day arrives, signaled by a switch to the present tense, though the stream-of-consciousness remains constant—as if Vivian and Hannah had never grown up and experienced a life of their own. If the point of the story is to get at the reason behind Darlene and Mick’s breakup, it’s a flimsy teaser. While there’s considerable detail throughout, den Hartog’s tidy prose and fleeting surfaces don’t let the reader glean a visceral sense of these characters’ lives.
A sweetly pleasing though scarcely satisfying narrative.