From American Book Award winner Dew (Dale Loves Sophie to Death, 1981; a memoir, The Family Heart, 1994, etc.) comes a leisurely, deceptively formal, quietly ambitious exploration of love in turn-of-the-century Ohio.
Born within hours of each other in August 1888, Robert Butler and first cousins Lilly and Warren Scofield share their mostly idyllic childhoods in Washburn, Ohio. Theirs is a three-pronged love affair of innocent purity in which Lilly is the “inspiration,” Warren the “ambassador” to the rest of the world, and Robert the “conscience.” But with adulthood comes their inevitable splintering apart: Warren becomes passionately involved in his family’s manufacturing business; Lilly and Robert marry. Warren recognizes that the wedding of his cousin to his best friend signifies the end of childhood, but Lilly mistakenly sees the marriage as a way to unite the three. She loves Robert but also loves Warren and expects to remain the center of both men’s affections. Instead, Warren falls in love with Agnes Claytor. The much younger Agnes has grown up the oldest child in a politically prominent but troubled family headed by an emotionally unstable mother and a father whose violence lies barely under the surface. In contrast to Lilly, who works to maintain her charismatic charm and slightly daring eccentricity, Agnes—as the difference in their first names implies—has survived her childhood by being down-to-earth and practical. Yet unlike Lilly and Robert, the love between Warren and Agnes is filled with sexual passion—at least until motherhood drives Agnes to create for her children the ordered family life she missed. Under the placid surface of upper-class life, Dew finds an accumulation of small but telling moments to show all the crossed wires and misconceptions that eat away at relationships: even people who love one another, it seems, can never quite know their lover’s heart.
Although Dew’s stately pace requires patience, particularly at first, the fictional world she creates becomes irresistible and hard to leave by book’s end.