Southern girls gone mild figure in Brown’s nostalgic paean to a town bifurcated by the Mason-Dixon Line.
A prefatory author’s note issues a disclaimer: “This is not a plot-driven book.” But what readers, particularly of Brown’s various mystery series, may not be expecting is that the book is also not driven by suspense or conflict. Instead, it portrays more or less happy people leading uneventful and in some cases exceedingly prosperous lives in 1920. Celeste, the protagonist, is a wealthy heiress, gorgeous, bisexual, and vaguely uncomfortable with her enforced leisure since her father left the stewardship of the family industries to her brothers. With her only partially mixed blessing, her brother Curtis has just married her longtime lover, Ramelle, who is pregnant with his child. The story, such as it is, revolves around a half-year in the lives of Celeste, her friends, and retainers in the town of Runnymede, situated on the Pennsylvania/Maryland border. Celeste falls in love with Ben, a baseball player who's a World War I veteran and an aspiring stained-glass artist. She sets about making his life better without overtly appearing to be his benefactor and wounding his male pride. Her housekeeper and cook, Cora, has two daughters, Louise and Julia, who provide the closest thing to entertainment this novel offers with their crushes and teenage rivalries, including a long-standing spat with a classmate, Dimps Jr., whose main offense seems to be large breasts. Celeste comes to the aid of her older sister, Carlotta, who runs a Catholic school, when a fire breaks out, threatening to expose a major source of the school’s and Carlotta’s income: a cellarful of bootleg liquor. (Prohibition has just descended on Runnymede’s recalcitrant citizens.) Apparently both a prequel to and recap of her other Runnymede novels (e.g. Loose Lips, 1999, Six of One, 1978, etc.), this outing serves up unremitting dollops of niceness.
Happy families, alike or not, do not electrifying fiction make.