Postwar marriage and motherhood are more complicated than two cousins expected in Klaussmann’s smart, unsettling debut.
In September 1945, Nick and Helena are drinking gin in their backyard in Cambridge, Mass., looking forward to the end of rationing and the beginning of their adult lives. Helena is headed for Hollywood to marry Avery Lewis, Nick to Florida to be reunited with her Navy veteran husband, Hughes Derringer. Part I chronicles that less-than-successful reunion from Nick’s point of view, then moves back to Cambridge as both women become pregnant in 1947. Tiger House, Nick’s family home on Martha’s Vineyard, sees a turbulent summer in 1959 when Nick’s daughter Daisy (this section’s viewpoint character) and Helena’s son Ed discover the corpse of a Portuguese maid. We eventually find out who killed Elena Nunes, but the focus is on simmering tensions within and between the two families as the narrative moves into the 1960s and expands to include Helena’s, Hughes’ and Ed’s perspectives. Restless Nick has casual flings that make both Hughes and her unhappy. Avery, obsessed with a dead movie star, gets Helena hooked on pills and pimps her out to a producer. Passive-aggressive Helena, instead of dumping Avery, blames all her problems on the admittedly bossy Nick and encourages creepily detached Ed to resent Nick too. Daisy gets engaged to a young man who seems far too interested in her glamorous mother. Developments in the Lewis family strain credulity, but Klaussmann’s pitch-perfect portrait of the Derringer marriage gives the novel a strong emotional charge. Nick is frustrated by life as a decorative appendage; Hughes is uneasily aware that the part of himself he’s always held in reserve has something to do with her infidelities. Their complicated, painfully loving relationship and their mutual tenderness for fresh-faced Daisy ring true, while the odysseys of Helena and Ed clang with melodrama.
Uneven, but stinging dialogue and sharp insights offer strong foundations on which this novice author can build.