Hughes (Double Happiness, 2010, etc.) follows a family reeling from the loss of a child through two disordered years in New Jersey and London.
It’s not just the death of 8-year-old Cubbie that’s weighing on Nick, Jean, and Lily Devlin as the novel opens in 1969. Nick has been pressured by his manipulative, amoral brother, Lionel, to take a London-based job with volatile cosmetics tycoon Billy Byron, and Jean is unhappy about relocating to England from their home in Gooseneck Cove, a wedding present from her adored father that she’s turned into a showcase. Eighth-grader Lily is struggling to master the intricacies of early-adolescent social interactions; her self-assurance isn’t bolstered by the condescension of her mean-girl best friend, Margaret, and she displays an unfortunate weakness for boys who alternately entice and reject her. The first few chapters are a whirl of names and relationships that don’t yet make a lot of sense, since Hughes is lavish with allusions and sparing with concrete information, which tends to arrive piecemeal. It’s quickly clear, however, that Jean is fonder of her brother-in-law than she should be, even though Lionel has landed Nick into serious trouble before, and that Nick likes to indulge himself with intoxicants and extramarital sex, a tendency that will only worsen in London. The family dynamic is somewhat reminiscent of Hughes’ previous novel, Wavemaker II (2001), as is the mood of lurking dread. Here, the withholding narrative style effectively induces in readers the same state of disorientation that envelops all three Devlins in London (whose business and social scenes are depicted as vicious and corrupt), but it also tends to alienate us from the characters. Final plot twists and long-delayed revelations back in the U.S. are shocking but delivered in an elliptical manner that muffles their emotional impact.
No question about this author’s gift for striking imagery and vivid scene-setting, but her characterizations could be deeper, and she might consider the possibility that atmosphere is not everything.