In Wells’ (Mademoiselle Renoir à Paris, 2018, etc.) novel, a dysfunctional family struggles to cope with a death.
“There never has been much happiness in the world,” says mother of three Jewell Hendricks, one of multiple narrators in this novel. In the fall of 1964, the Hendricks family has been in Dallas for 18 months after a move that Jewell instigated but now regrets. She wanted her husband, Ross, to get a more stable job, but now that he’s home more often, his heavy drinking has become more apparent. He’s never gotten over his World War II experience, and he suffers from nightmares and bouts of erratic, mean behavior. The household also includes 14-year-old Holly and 13-year-old Jake; the eldest child, 20-year-old Kathleen, is already married and lives elsewhere. Jake’s birth delighted Ross, who always wanted a son; he later becomes obsessed with Jake’s going to West Point and becoming a commissioned officer. Holly is always fighting for parental attention, although ever since she contracted polio, Ross has tried to please her. However, when Jake falls ill and dies, the family falls apart: “We were the unhappiest family I knew of,” narrates Holly, “each of us journeying through the darkness alone.” Holly, angry and forlorn, is sent to stay with her grandmother for the summer, where an African-American caretaker named Antarctica passes on “little seeds of wisdom” that help change Holly’s perspective and give her new hope. In this novel, Wells describes a tragedy that doesn’t draw family members closer together but instead sends them whirling into their own private hells—each person sure that he or she has it the worst. The resulting character sketches are convincing throughout, and the prose can be lyrical at times: “The world was too beautiful for the way I felt,” says Jewell in a scene set in springtime. The novel’s ending, however, is rather precious in tone, and it relies on a tired stock character—a person of color whose special insights aid the white protagonist: “She had come into my life at a time when I needed her most.”
A story that effectively anatomizes the selfishness of grief despite a descent into sentimentality.