A novel of female friendship and destabilizing romance that spans decades and continents.
Dunn (Under the Harrow, 2010, etc.) has created a patchwork narrative by weaving together five different versions of the same story, which supposedly originated in a posthumous novel by Elizabeth Gaskell which is then rewritten by four different authors in different places and times. They all tell the story of five young women whose long-lasting friendship has joined them in a kind of sisterhood and the five young suitors who pursue them to variously disastrous ends. The tale hops from a small mill town near Manchester, England, in 1859; to San Francisco in 1906; to Sinclair Lewis' fictional Zenith, Winnemac, in 1923; to London during the Blitz of 1940; to a small Mississippi town in 1997. Jumping among the five settings as the story unfolds, the novel manages to preserve each woman’s distinct personality despite the regional differences and shifts in prose style. Soon, the narrative swivels from a jaunty examination of female bonding to a series of harrowing events sprung from the passions of the women and their suitors. A thematic throughline begins to appear: that of men’s propensity for violence, which can result in actions both forgivable (a brother defends his sister’s honor) and indefensible (a hothead abuses a prostitute in place of the woman he really wants to punish). But Dunn fails to carry this observation to a place where we might glean any real insight into human behavior. While he pulls off his exercise in pastiche, the reader finishes the tale wondering what exactly was the point of all that time travel.
A fire, an earthquake, a bombing, a long-lost brother, some gay and lesbian intrigue, a few near deaths and a few more actual ones: the plot will carry you swiftly through the book, but by the end, it deposits you on shaky ground.