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 An enticing romantic melodrama--about a beautiful, doomed woman and her varied effects on those who love her and struggle to save her--from Canadian author Findley (Headhunter, 1994; Stones, 1990, etc.). Lily Kilworth is remembered with affectionate wariness by her illegitimate son, Charlie, following her death (in 1939) in a fire in an Ontario asylum. Marshalling his own memories of her, together with information elicited from others, Charlie pieces together his mother's family background and history in a fervent attempt to learn the identity of his father and to understand Lily's mysteriously divided nature. It's a sweeping story, beginning in 1889 with the seduction of Lily's mother Edith (``Ede'') by a traveling piano-salesman, her lover's accidental death, and Ede's later marriage to his brother; the narrative bristles thereafter with a succession of passionate surrenders to impulse, grievous illnesses, untimely deaths, and recurring signs of Lily's ``madness''--in part the inherited ``falling sickness'' (or epilepsy) that keeps her forever on the fringes of respectable society. Life in Canada from the 1890's to the 1930's is evoked in convincing detail, and Findley's characterizations are both effectively specific and satisfyingly opaque. But it's all a bit too self-consciously Brontâan (there is, in fact, a revealing allusion to this influence in the names given a trio of housemaids). Tramplings by horses, convulsions, brain tumors, premonitions of death by fire, among other excesses, make for an overheated narrative--even granting the central presence of a heroine who once ``absolutely believed Elizabeth Barrett Browning was in possession of her being.'' We feel the fascination Lily Kilworth exerts over people, but we never fully believe the gothic circumstances that overtake them. No great shakes as a literary performance but, nonetheless, a generally absorbing saga that will probably be much in evidence around the beaches this summer. It's a cut above R.F. Delderfield and Daphne du Maurier, and one or two below Jane Eyre.

Pub Date: June 12th, 1996
ISBN: 0-517-70307-6
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Crown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1996


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