In O’Connor’s (Florida’s American Heritage River, 2009, etc.) novel, the descendants of three families that settled along California’s American River in the mid-1800s intersect a century later.
The story begins with an extensive ancestral introduction to the McPhalan, Morales, and Ashida families, whose successes and misfortunes set the stage for future deep-seated resentments. Then the narrative jumps ahead to 1959, and O’Connor proceeds to spin a dizzying web of interrelationships and betrayals among all three clans. This first volume of a projected trilogy focuses primarily on the wealthy McPhalan family: Owen, Marian, and their three children—high school senior Julian, 15-year-old Kate, and their younger sibling, Alex. The discontent at their Mockingbird Valley Ranch, where members of the Ashida family work, is apparent from the first pages. Marian departs for Boston with Alex so that she may participate in a summer music program. After they arrive, 40-year-old Marian encamps in a cottage near Tanglewood to pursue her own artistic aspirations. There, she meets another very gifted musician in his early 20s, Carl Fitzgerald Morales, and they engage in a summer fling, filled with music and art. But Marian isn’t the only McPhalan woman who’ll capture Carl’s heart. In California, Kate, the most stable and likable of this book’s characters, helps on the ranch, functioning as a liaison between the fractious clan members. After leaving Mockingbird for San Francisco, Julian begins a downward spiral that continues until the story’s tragic close in 1963. The novel is engaging throughout, providing some interesting details of California history. That said, nearly all the characters are driven by internal demons, and their overwrought selfishness eventually becomes tiresome. So does the extensive detailing of classical pieces that provide the background for much of the action in the Tanglewood scenes. O’Connor’s prose is generally proficient, but it would have benefited from a stronger copy edit to remove some errors, such as “Kate’s sister younger, Alex, insisted it was time to go.”
An intriguing narrative concept weighed down by the excesses of its flawed characters.