I had a naughty, clandestine little affair with this book, reading it when I felt I really ought to be giving my attention to other things, and these turned out to be most apt circumstances for the story. This is a novel about glamourous people with troubled, perverse and even violent undersides, doing things they shouldn’t and being forced to live with the consequences. The action takes place on a wonderful old family estate in Martha’s Vineyard and skips about in time over three key periods: the end of the Second World War, a sultry summer in 1959 and the reunion of the family in 1967. So there are many echoes and quotations from a certain kind of gin-soaked, jazz-crazed literature, shades of Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Richard Yates and the noir thriller. They combine to produce a novel that feels at once rich and familiar and yet very different and compelling.
Nick and Helena are cousins with an end-of-the-family-line feel to them. Nick is the glamour puss, a privileged and powerful woman who still longs for the indefinable more. Helena is the insecure one, who would settle for very little but seems to end up with even less. When the novel opens, they are ‘wearing their slips and drinking gin neat out of jelly jars’, contemplating the end of the war. Helena has lost one husband but is excited by the prospect of a second marriage and a move to Hollywood. Nick is longing for a reunion with her handsome Navy lieutenant, Hughes. Like many on the cusp of peace, they are anticipating an end to their troubles, when in fact they have only just begun. Both marriages get off to rocky starts; Hughes returns cold and closed up, giving the emotionally greedy Nick nothing of himself, whilst Helena’s money-grubbing husband is still fixated on his previous actress wife. From these inauspicious early starts, two children are born: Daisy, Nick’s daughter, will be all shining passion, Ed, Helena’s son, will be chilling darkness, and whilst both will do their best to get away from the duplicitous and dishonest relationships their parents have, the results will be far from successful.
The bleeding heart of the narrative is the long hot summer of 1959 when the family (with the exception of Helena’s husband who is more of a notable absence) reconvenes on the family estate. Daisy is mad keen on tennis and determined to beat her detested rival, Peaches, both in sport and love. Ed is developing warning signs in his favourite hobbies of voyeuristic spying on the locals and disembowelling mice. When the two of them come across the body of a murdered maid, the event is a symbol for all that’s wrong in their world, and a catalyst for the menacing undercurrents of thwarted emotion to rise to the surface. This doesn’t necessarily happen at once – some consequences are slow in coming, but the result is a truly gripping car crash of a tale. The plotting is excellent, as the story moves through five different narrative perspectives, each of the protagonists adding their perspectives and releasing their secrets in ways that build a clever and complex picture of events. Gradually, as the reader moves through the novel, the pieces fall into place, that summer of ’59 is rehearsed over and again, and the characters get what’s coming to them.
I confess it’s been a while since I read a book that I so did not want to put down. The only minor issue I had was with the ending, which wanted to reach for one last sensational event and over-egged the pudding a little. But I wouldn’t want to make a lot of fuss about that. There is much to enjoy in this intricate Chinese puzzle of a narrative. Vivid and atmospheric, conjuring up a wonderful portrait of mid-century America but getting down and dirty with the eternal human problems of betrayal, desire and deceit, this is a story that manages to be simmeringly hot and yet sinister and chilling at the same time. Definitely recommended for banishing the winter blues.