A rambunctious third novel from the author of A Stolen Tongue (1997) and The Dress Lodger (2000).
This time out, Holman virtuosically entangles two arresting plotlines: the ripple effects of the birth of (count ’em) eleven babies to an exhausted Virginia woman and the creation and transportation to Washington of the eponymous protein source. When “Manda” Frank, scion of a white-trash family, in the tidy, history-rich town of Three Chimneys, produces unprecedented results of her consumption of fertility drugs, well-meaning neighbors shower the beleaguered Franks with gifts and promises; presidential candidate Adams Brooke (the self-proclaimed “Farmer’s Friend”) drops by, and fiscally embattled dairy farmer Margaret Prickett is persuaded to re-create an obscure incident from the presidency of Thomas Jefferson: the creation and delivery to the White House of a 1200-pound wheel of cheese. Holman’s enthralling narrative, which ranges among the experiences and interrelationships of several expertly drawn characters, also incorporates an impressive amount of detailed information about such resolutely untrendy matters as farming, cheesemaking, animal husbandry, house construction, and the flexible,if austere moral nature of one of our most ingenious and articulate Founding Fathers. Poor Manda Frank’s nightmarish maternity (exacerbated when several babies inevitably die) is smartly juxtaposed with Margaret’s initially passionate, eventually wavering support of the pragmatic Brooke, and her conflicted relations with two other beautifully realized characters: her hired hand August Vaughn, a part-time “Chautauquan living historian” (i.e., Thomas Jefferson impersonator), unable to declare his love for Margaret; and her adolescent daughter Polly, herself seeking “liberation” through a romantic fixation on her intense, challenging history teacher. All strands are conjoined as the cheese marches to Washington, shepherded by Holman’s most winningly complex character: Pastor Leland Vaughn (August’s father), a tireless Christian worker torn between his guilt for having partially encouraged Manda’s perilous pregnancy and benign intervention in the needy lives of his parishioners and neighbors.
Part Jon Hassler, part Robert Altman film—and all-around terrific.