THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE by Susan Howatch
Kirkus Star

THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Another Howatch family-saga--distinguished, like most of the others, by its length (976 pages!), its energetic parade of first-person narrators, and (most impressively) its vigorous streak of dark, unsentimental irony. The time period is 1913-1970. The family is the Welsh/English Godwin clan, based at the Oxmoon manor. And the plot--heavy on guilt, illegitimacy, madness, and rivalrous cousins--is loosely based on the 14th-century history of John of Gaunt, Richard II, and the Bolingbrokes. Narrator #1 is Robert, the youngish heir to Oxmoon, who's thrilled when his lost childhood-sweetheart--cousin Ginevra--returns to England as a pliant widow; Robert is not so thrilled, however, when he learns that Ginevra was seduced years ago (at 16) by his own father--an unstable philanderer haunted by a family-history of sodomy, adultery, and murder! Still, Robert and Ginevra do marry--as Ginevra takes over the unromanticized narration. (About the groom: ""Oh, let's be honest, I've no doubt he can be very tricky."") The marriage is promptly in trouble: Robert can't deal with independent Ginevra's sexual sophistication; there are fertility/impotence problems; then Robert comes down with an ""unnamable paralytic disease""--and Ginevra vows to stand by him. (""I could always walk out on a husband. But I could never turn my back on a friend."") So, while Robert and Ginevra soldier on, raising odd son Kester, the focus shifts to Robert's priggish younger brother John-- a gentleman farmer who loathes his old father's immoralities. . . but finds himself, after wife Blanche drops dead, changing his world-view: though pressed into marriage #2 with US heiress Constance, John will live in sin with earthy Welshwoman Bronwen--winding up with children by three different women! And, after Robert finally expires (about halfway through), the novel will focus largely on the struggle for control/inheritance of Oxmoon between emotive, flaky Kester (the bisexual Richard II figure) and John's athletic, music-loving, obsessively upright son Harry--who take over the narration, in strongly contrasting styles. (Kester: ""My overall appearance resembled a mutated chrysanthemum."") Finally, then, circa 1948, following madness, murder, and coverup, crazy Kester will die (suicide?), and cousin Harry will triumph. But 15 years later Harry's son Hal (Henry V) will give up his 1960s decadence to investigate the fishy death of Kester--in the novel's most tedious stretch by far. Elsewhere, however, despite the anachronistic plot contortions, Howatch makes this a grand nonsense to get lost in all summer long--with zesty talk (lots of it), funerals galore, wild family trees, and intense haunted-clan atmosphere.

Pub Date: June 4th, 1984
Publisher: Simon & Schuster