SECOND SON by Robert Ferro


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Ferro returns to the theme of The Family of Max Desir (1983)--family conflict sparked by death and homosexuality--but here the presence of AIDS gives the conflict another dimension. Mark Valerian, a 44-year-old landscape gardener and the second son of the title, has experienced, a year after diagnosis, nothing worse than fatigue and headaches. So he has the energy to defy the rest of the family (father George, brother George, and sisters Vita and Tessa) over the issue of the Cape May beach house where Margaret, their beloved wife and mother, recently died. Old man Valerian, a hitherto successful Philadelphia businessman suddenly facing huge debts, wants to sell; Mark alone is adamant that Margaret would have wanted the beach house to stay in the family, no matter what. The novel thus reposes on the irony that the fight for this symbol of family continuity is being waged by the one Valerian who is both childless and under a possible death sentence. Promising enough material, but undeveloped, for after a labored exposition Ferro moves the focus to Rome, where Mark has gone to landscape a terrace. He meets and falls in love with Bill, another AIDS-stricken American. They rendezvous in Venice (tea at the Danieli), then move on to Cape May and Bill's lakeside retreat in the Berkshires before Bill is rushed into the hospital with a collapsed lung, leaving only enough time for a perfunctory wrap-up of the family dispute (a full mortgage on the house, but no sale); the fate of the lovers remains in doubt. A slight, awkwardly put together work, too diffuse for emotional impact. By portraying AIDS more as enigmatic adversary than wanton destroyer, Ferro has failed to draw on its power as a catalyst for Mark or his family.

Publisher: Crown