Skeletons pop out of the closet after an artist dies.
Narrator Alec and painter Webb Hartley have been best friends since even before their college days in Maine. Now both are in their 60s, and Alec, a retired literature professor, is on his way to backwoods Maine to attend Webb’s wedding to his fourth wife. In the stale convention of fictional male artists, Webb is a compulsive womanizer, while Alec’s only wife, Harriet, has died ten years earlier, of cancer. In Alec’s recollections, their placid marriage seems defined by absences: of sex, of children. Alec arrives to find that Webb has just dropped dead (heart attack), leaving behind his distraught, much younger bride-to-be, Pru, and their small daughter Mindy. But Webb has a posthumous assignment for Alec: travel to California to break the news of his death in person to his first wife Jenny, who was also Alec’s first love when they shacked up together, with Webb as roommate. Everything revolves around a long-ago rainy night in Baltimore, when Alec surprised Webb and Jenny in flagrante, and fled the scene. The novel’s key scene now takes place at Jenny’s horse ranch in Santa Barbara, when she tells Alec that what he saw in Baltimore hadn’t been mindless rutting: she’d seen a dead body outside her workplace and thrust herself on Webb for consolation. And that’s not all: Jenny also has a double-whammy revelation that will leave Alec devastated. All this reeks of contrivance, as does the news of Mindy’s disappearance, which sends Alec racing back to Maine, where he’ll find Mindy in Webb’s studio (couldn’t anybody else have checked?). For all the revelations, nothing has changed at the end: Alec will resume his midwestern retirement; Pru will stay single in Maine. Storywriter and novelist Wilson (The Victim’s Daughter, 1991, etc.), former longtime editor of The North American Review, hinges his tale on a what-if: What if Alec and Jenny had worked it all out, way back when?
A lackluster and uninvolving performance.