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 A first novel by the biographer of James Beard tries to recapture the moral issues of 1950s America, a time when WASPish reticence and conservative social values reigned. To his credit, Clark doesn't celebrate one worldview over another, understanding that each has its drawbacks. Like Dreiser's American Tragedy, this somber narrative turns on a crisis that would be solved today without severe social consequences. Anna MacEwan, a divorced 30-year-old mother in St. Paul, becomes pregnant by her boyfriend before he has actually proposed to her. Something of a grind at his staid law firm, Charles Norden fears this untimely pregnancy might damage his chances at a partnership, so he encourages Anna to have an illegal abortion. The novel, though, is really her father's story. Richard MacEwan is a dull and dutiful estate lawyer who has always done what is right and good, watching while his brother James, a charming lady's man, has pursued the high life. The story opens with James's accidental death, a mystery that sets in motion a series of revelations. In a family defined by secrets and unspoken feelings, Richard is disturbed by a letter discovered in his brother's remains--a letter from Richard's wife declining an affair with his brother. He is stunned, disoriented, and then Anna suffers a botched abortion, and Richard, a devout Episcopalian, feels himself descending into a world of disbelief and infidelity. After a heroic struggle, this solid and loving father accepts that his legalistic view of the world has been inadequate, and he discovers moral subtleties that help stave off psychic anarchy. It's hard to get worked-up over an issue that seems somewhat dated; Clark's overwrought style doesn't help, nor does his explicit propaganda for safe, legal abortion. Still, his ability to see the value in a lost, often ridiculed, way of life is valuable, as is his tidy narrative technique. (First printing of 50,000; $75,000 ad/promo; author tour)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-312-15149-7
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Picador
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1996


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