DWELLING PLACES by Vinita Hampton Wright


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Tedious domestic saga chronicling the demise of an Iowa farm family.

After spending several weeks in a mental hospital for suicidal depression, 43-year-old Mack Barnes is coming home to his farmhouse near the town of Beulah. The stoicism practiced in traditional farm communities has not equipped anyone to deal with this unsettling development. Mack’s wife Jodie, who works in the local school’s cafeteria, is ambivalent about his homecoming; she feels that she has been blamed for his bouts of erratic behavior, and she worries about protecting their two children. Dutiful daughter Kenzie, 14, is veering perilously toward Christian fundamentalism. Her 17-year-old brother, Young Taylor—named after the deceased Barnes patriarch who died ten years earlier in a questionable machine accident—dresses in lugubrious black garments and wears creepy makeup. Widowed grandmother Rita, who now lives in Beulah, won’t discuss the suspicious details of husband Taylor’s accident. She still grieves over the loss of the working farm: though Mack tenuously inhabits the homestead, he makes his living as a mechanic; the portion of land inherited by his younger brother Alex is long gone, lost as he descended into alcoholism. Mack’s deep-seated issues require medication that ruins his sex life with his wife. Jodie, recognizing that he’s “still fighting battles that have little to do with her,” finds a willing admirer at school and embarks on a satisfying affair. Meanwhile, no one monitors the comings and goings of the children, who slip into social vagrancy. The author creates strong, understated characterizations and a sense of enormous drama as secrets periodically erupt. But Wright (Velma Still Cooks in Leeway, not reviewed, etc.) could have been more selective with the details of her ponderous tragedy, which unravels in interminable increments.

Lambasted with misery, readers may well miss the intended message of Christian transcendence.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2006
ISBN: 0-06-079080-6
Page count: 352pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2005