A contemporary portrait of the stultified life of Philadelphia’s Main Line elite.
The plot revolves around a possible school hazing scandal, but really Shepard’s subject is the smashing silence and conformity required of the well-mannered life. Sylvie Bates-McAllister lives in Roderick, the Main Line mansion she inherited from her beloved grandfather. Despite raising her two boys in the house, it remains largely unchanged since her grandfather lived in it—along with the prep school he founded, Swithin, a testament to his greatness. Sylvie serves on the board of Swithin and is called one night when a student is found dead, the apparent victim of suicide. The boy was on the wrestling team her 30-year-old son Scott coaches; there are rumors of student hazing and the complicity of the coach. Sylvie believes the worst. Scott, adopted as a toddler, is of mixed race and has a strained relationship with Sylvie and her older, biological son Charles. Charles, a prim and quiet aspiring journalist, is Sylvie’s favorite, but her late husband James doted on Scott, found in him an outsider he could identify with. Now that James is dead, Scott is more of a mystery than ever—he has a defiant swagger and tattoos and low-slung jeans—and Sylvie is simply embarrassed by him. Swirling around the breaking scandal are a variety of subplots—Charles’ new wife Joanna (who as a girl kept a society page scrapbook featuring the public appearances of the Bates-McAllister family) is beginning to think her marriage is a misplaced fantasy. Charles is set to interview his high-school sweetheart Bronwyn, who has become a sort of back-to-the-land hippie in rural Pennsylvania. Sylvie becomes increasingly obsessed with the affair she believes her husband had. The strings are so tightly laced around this family that they are bound to break—when they do, old secrets reap surprising results.
Though the plot sometimes wanders and the “scandal” never seems urgent, Shepard has crafted a fine character study on the repressed lives of the American elite.