The third installment of Dew’s portrait of the Scofield clan of Washburn, Ohio (The Truth of the Matter, 2005, etc.), focuses on the aging of matriarch Agnes.
When the novel opens in 1953, Agnes is in her early 50s, long widowed and living alone in the big old Scofield manse, which she can barely maintain on her teacher’s salary. Now that her three older children, Claytor, Betts and Dwight (actually her much younger brother but raised as a son), are married and raising their own families with varying success, while the youngest, Howard, is about to marry, Agnes’s maternal interest does not stretch much beyond dutiful. She receives comically awkward overtures of affection from a clueless filmmaker intent on documenting daily life in Washburn. The fact that the filmmaker is tone-deaf to the nuances of the lives he follows is the novel’s best, slightly mean joke. Agnes’s real suitor is Sam Holloway. Her son-in-law Will’s business partner, Sam is considerably younger than Agnes but proves a perfectly companionable and practical mate. More passionate, though not by much, is alcoholic Claytor’s relationship with his Southern wife Lavinia, who eschews the prevalent Midwestern decorum, a combination of restraint and etiquette that she derides in a speech that gives the novel its title. Lavinia is the only source of energy among carefully self-controlled characters in a formal narrative that mirrors too closely the very midcentury, Middle American reserve being recorded. The second half of the novel passes in quick succession through the later ’50s and ’60s and into the early ’70s, recording births, illnesses, family gatherings and small crises but no serious drama. Most interesting are historical tidbits Dew drops in, from the polio epidemic of the ’50s to Wernher von Braun’s reaction to JFK’s death to the desegregation of Little Rock’s high school.
The fictional characters, so vivid in The Evidence Against Her (2001), have paled as they have aged, and even the passions of the younger generation are too muted to engage the reader.