A matriarch’s 75th birthday in 1985 sparks a family reunion, and the up-rooting of a few long-buried secrets.
This debut novel offers a reversal-of-fortune saga about a family from Philadelphia’s Main Line —an enclave of the city’s suburbs defined by old wealth and extravagant mansions. As the story opens, Dolly Scott has just been arrested in the middle of the night for trespassing on the grounds of the Hilltop Country Club, caught apparently trying to dig up a box of jewelry she had buried on the property decades earlier when it was still part of her grand estate, known as Llantrisant. Dolly, whose money was stolen by her husband, Dixon, before he ran off with his mistress, now lives in the former gatehouse of that estate. Meanwhile, the youngest of the three Scott offspring has been locked up in the pricy West Lawn mental sanitarium. The tale moves back and forth between 1985 and the 1950s (the decade during which the Scott family’s dysfunction gradually culminates in its ultimate downfall). Rhea writes the 1985 sections in the first-person voice of Dolly’s older daughter Hillary Scott Sherman, while the tales from the ’50s, which make up the great bulk of the narrative, are delivered in the third-person. The technique almost works, but with Hillary remaining the central protagonist, there is initially a discordant feel to the switch in voice, especially because she is the one who leads the reader into the retrospective by saying: “I slipped into a reverie about the old days. I guess you could say…the start of it all, was the day my brother [Trip] found our younger sister, Penny, locked in the tennis court.” But emerging from that point on is an engaging, well-delivered story that includes parental neglect, shattered egos, love, death, betrayal, and emotional fragility. Along the way, readers are treated to a blistering behind-the-scenes portrait of the lifestyles of Philadelphia’s socially elite. A concluding chapter, “Wrap-up,” is unsatisfyingly brief, but it does offer a surprise final twist. Unfortunately, it also leaves a couple of recurring questions about Dixon’s past unanswered.
Despite its flaws, an engrossing novel about a dysfunctional family, well suited for the beach.