A mournful tale of illness, accident and betrayal across generations from the author of Rainy Lake (1994).
When Minneapolis architect Carl Fens collapses at the opening of a museum retrospective devoted to his work, it’s an early sign of Shy-Drager syndrome, whose grim progress provides the novel’s only forward movement. Otherwise, Carl’s and his wife Hallie’s memories alternate with the narrative of his nervous system’s inexorable decline to depict a tension-riddled family nursing wounds both physical and psychological. Carl’s cheating father died in a car crash with his mistress when Carl was in high school; Hallie’s mother walked out when she was a child; and neither has really gotten over those old wounds. Carl’s obsession with his work has severely strained their marriage more than once, most notably in 1996, when Hallie left him and had a brief affair. The Fens’ daughter Beatrice still has neurological damage from being hit by a car as a child. Twin sister Cordelia lost her young husband three years ago in a fire that decimated Caddis Wood, the rural Wisconsin retreat where the family spends summers and holidays. It’s there that Carl discovers letters from Hallie’s former lover, shortly before he learns of his terminal diagnosis. He reacts with precisely the solipsistic anger and hurt you’d expect, and the unfolding details of Beatrice’s accident and Cordelia’s loss don’t exactly lighten the somber mood. There are some moving moments, such as Hallie’s tentative reconciliation with her mother, and it’s a nice touch that the rupture caused by Carl’s discovery of her affair is not resolved by a grand scene of forgiveness, merely subsumed in a painfully new level of intimacy as Hallie tenderly cares for her dying husband. Still, there’s an awful lot of woe here, more perhaps than one story can comfortably bear.
Rockcastle writes compassionately about her characters’ grievances and hesitant attempts to grow, but lovely prose doesn’t entirely compensate for an excess of plot points and shortage of actual development.