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 Twenty-six years after his award-winning debut (The Beasts, 1966), Garrett delivers this grim second novel about incest and its consequences for mother and child. Willa Rhineman, an unschooled, 16-year-old country girl from Pineville, New Jersey, has just buried her grandmother Lydia in the woods and is leaving for the city to look for her long-lost mother Madeleine. It's 1980, but the sonorous prose suggests a time even earlier than 1947, the year Lydia Wier hired Emil Rhineman as her handyman. Emil is a weak, fearful, fitfully charming ladies' man who turns violent when drunk; Lydia is a strong, undemonstrative, religious-minded control freak, determined to tame Emil's ``darkly fluctuant character,'' even if it means marrying him. Their daughter Madeleine is hated by Lydia and adored by Emil, quite innocently at first; but on her 15th birthday, on a day trip to Atlantic City, he deflowers her. When she gives birth to Willa, she will not acknowledge the baby beyond breast-feeding it. Soon after, she gravitates to the city and (having zero self-esteem) to a hip black lover guaranteed to treat her mean; after him comes a Valium habit and a suicide attempt, until she disappears into thin air in 1967. Willa tracks down her mother's old cronies, pathetic Sixties ghosts like the heroin-addicted lesbian pimp Mary Vandel, but finds nothing of her mother except her journal; then, in an idiotic trick ending, she solves the riddle of Madeleine's disappearance and promptly kills herself, getting it right the first time, unlike Emil or Madeleine: game, set, and match to death. Save for a scattering of powerful moments, an unenjoyable and disorienting read, as we are bounced between three time-periods, four principals (all of them victims, according to Garrett's iron determinism), and a variety of influences, ranging from Dreiser early on to a medley of Purdy, West, and Baldwin in the scenes of big-city decadence.

Pub Date: June 17th, 1992
ISBN: 0-06-016880-3
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1992