Kirkus Star


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There's less regional flavor in this lively flap of seamy family linen than in Oral History (1983) or Black Mountain Breakdown (1980); still, Smith continues to stir up her buzzing family clusters with a mist of mystery and warmth, and here, considerable humor, as five children of the elderly Elizabeth--grande dame of a small Virginia town--weather her dying, death, and its aftermath, while mulling their own miseries and uncovering an old crime. Unmarried Sybill, to whom romance and marriage had not ""occurred,"" spills a childhood nightmare vision to a hypnotist. Could she really have seen mother Elizabeth hack away at her father, Jewell Rife, with an axe and then dump him in the well (covered years ago)? When Elizabeth is in her terminal coma, Sybill keeps virgil for a word, while at her bedside her siblings gather to adjust to the absence of the mother who in her ruthless gentility might have skewed them all. Among the offspring: ""Mr. and Mrs. Wonderful,"" Dr. Don and Myrtle. Myrtle, tired of simply ""functioning"" for others, has found a lover in a wordless young exterminator; Dr. Don has his own secret comfort. (Their son Sean is sick of his parents--""so goddamn understanding all the time."") Then there's Candy, so pretty, a beautician by choice, loving and kind; Lacey the intellectual, who never bothered to finish her doctoral degree, whose husband is leaving her for a young grad student; and Arthur--heavy-drinking womanizer who never amounted to much. Also in town are the aunts never mentioned in Elizabeth's presence--Nettie, who runs a gas station, and Fay, fat as a house and plainly gaga. It's Lacey who finds Elizabeth's journal (in petit point prose)--a moony version of childhood and the fading glories of being a child of the town's first family. And it's sensible Dan who orders the well uncovered--presumably for a pool. Elizabeth's children and kin each has hits/her story, and outlines are filled in until each is free-standing, hard-edged, and, well, likable. An energetic entertainment with tragedy, murder and then, real binding love--coming out brightly in the wash.

Pub Date: Sept. 13th, 1985
ISBN: 0345410602
Publisher: Putnam