In Claud’s debut, a matriarch’s death triggers petty rivalries in a family business.
Even before Ward Mills CEO Dolly Ward passes away from cancer in 1988, Ted Brunson knows that the sun is slowly setting on the textile industry. For years, the family business in South Carolina has held its own among the “Big Five,” but global changes in the textile trade are slowly hitting home. Ted sees that the time has come for the company to be sold; the problem is that he’s an outsider, a Ward by marriage only. Although he’s the heir apparent to Dolly’s position, he might not have enough support from family board members who have other plans for the company. (The son of modest hardware-store owners, Ted is the titular “Dancin’ Man—a metaphorical toy easily manipulated by external circumstances.) To compound the situation, his marriage to Virginia Ward, Dolly’s only daughter, is on the rocks. Virginia also struggles as she tries to make peace with her past, including a strained mother-daughter relationship. Ted’s college friend, Virginia’s brother Sam, is about the only person who’s firmly on his side; years ago, Sam ignored Ted’s lack of blue blood and inducted his future brother-in-law to South Carolina high society. An assortment of other family members, including two Ward brothers that form part of the family’s “Atlanta contingent,” rounds out the cast. Claud’s descriptions of sprawling horse farms, languorous summer evenings and glimpses of Southern wealth (“The lawn rolled out before Ted glowing with the same emerald intensity as the fairways of the Fort Hill Country Club”) add delightful touches to this fast-paced narrative. Yet the story’s tight arc leaves some elements underexplored; it’s never clear, for example, what happens to Ted’s parents after he’s assimilated into the Ward clan. Also, an element of family scandal thrown in at the very end comes across as a tad disjointed and out of place. Nevertheless, this novel about the end of a way of life often makes for transporting reading.
An entertaining drama that reaffirms the familiar adage that family and business don’t mix.