Reviews provided by Syndetics
Library Journal Review
Like the author's last novel, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon (1998), this latest fiction is a period piece, a dark story of abuse and transcendence set in late 1918 as the horrors of World War I abate and the great influenza pandemic begins its destruction. Gibbons's trademark female narrator is Mary Oliver, a spirited young woman from an eccentric but socially prominent Washington household. Her high intelligence and ethical standards are challenged when she travels south to assist the pregnant wife of her long-estranged Uncle Troop. After settling into her relatives' small-town North Carolina mansion, Mary finds a shocking situation. Troop, an emotional batterer, has reduced his loving Maureen to a virtually helpless state of self-hatred and dependency. Under Mary's leadership, the household rebels, with dramatic consequences. Despite some riveting passages and the grace of Gibbons's economical prose style, this colorful material falls somewhat flat: too much is explicated and too little is revealed through dialog and action. Potentially interesting personalities seldom develop beyond stock characterizations, most notably the villainous Troop and Mary's loopy, if loving, immediate family. Not the writer's best work; purchase where demand warrants. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/03.]-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
Gibbons (Ellen Foster; On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon; etc.) hearkens back to the Bronte sisters with her penchant for the gothic in this rather stilted novel of female oppression and liberation. As WWI draws to an end, 22-year-old Mary Oliver sits at home in Washington, D.C., waiting for her postgraduate literature classes at Radcliffe to begin. To give her something to do, her mother, Martha, suggests that she travel to North Carolina to visit Martha's estranged half-brother, Troop, and his wife, Maureen, who is expecting a baby. Troop was a terror as a boy and young man, but Martha is sure he has changed since his marriage. Mary, however, arrives to find that Maureen has been all but destroyed by Troop's psychological manipulation and verbal abuse. Troop refuses to allow newspapers into his house and intercepts all letters, reinforcing the impression that, though war is raging in Europe, the real battle of the novel is being fought on the domestic front. Diagnosed with "female hysteria," Maureen has been subjected to various demeaning "treatments." Troop blames both her and Mary's family for his elderly mother's death and rules by fear in his quest for moral superiority, while Maureen is coached by Mary to fight for freedom and self-fulfillment. Mary is well suited to the task, since she comes from an unconventional family-her grandfather, one of the novel's most appealing characters, is a nudist. Reading aloud from letters written by a family friend who sought adventures abroad, Mary helps Maureen draw closer to an appreciation of "the joy at the confluence of love and freedom." Erratic storytelling weakens the novel, but Gibbons's tale is atmospheric and unsettling, narrated in hushed Victorian tones and ornamented with period flourishes. (Apr. 12) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Gibbons, as literary as she is popular, tends to portray resourceful, freethinking women in novels that subtly critique classic southern mores and offer clear-eyed inquiries into the tolls of illness and war. In this enveloping tale of marital strife and female resilience, Gibbons considers conflicts between blacks and whites and men and women within the context of the First World War and the Spanish influenza epidemic. Martha has sent her intelligent daughter, Mary, to North Carolina to help Martha's half-brother, Troop, and his expectant wife, Maureen, and Mary is amazed to find herself in a household as miserable as it is opulent. Troop is a coldhearted, possibly insane despot; lovely and muddled Maureen is his prisoner; and Zollie and Mamie, their kind African American employees, are treated with appalling indifference. The hate, lies, and machinations at work in this psychotic hothouse rival that of the most gothic of southern melodramas, a tradition Gibbons shrewdly subverts as she divines the true nature of feminine power and points the way toward justice in this gorgeously moody and piquant fairy tale. --Donna Seaman Copyright 2004 Booklist
Kirkus Book Review
Women rescue a crushed young wife from a domestic tyrant, in Gibbons's seventh novel (after On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, 1998). It's September 1918, and 22-year-old Mary Oliver is leaving home (Washington, DC) to spend time with her pregnant aunt Maureen in North Carolina. But first some background. In 1875, Nora Ross left husband Toby (Mary's maternal grandfather) after he became a nudist, going south with their son Troop. The impossible Nora proceeded to wring money out of the wealthy Toby, while vilifying him incessantly and raising Troop to believe in his own entitlement. Troop has become independently rich and a monstrous egotist. By 1918 he has been married for five years to the beautiful but malleable Maureen, from a poor family in Mississippi. The reader must also sort through Mary's family: her grandparents (two sets), mother Martha (Troop's half-sister), brother (a suicide), and father (death a mystery). So it's a relief to reach the less cluttered landscape of Elm City, North Carolina. The smart, self-assured Mary finds that Troop, without harming his wife physically, has reduced her to abject fear and dependency, even hiding her mother's letters. His subjugation of Maureen has become "a mechanical process." That's exactly right: Troop is a dull monster. Time for Mary to go to work. She has Maureen read letters written by her mother's close friend Judith, who had walked out on her philandering husband and reclaimed her own body and identity through free love. These letters are an awkward device, but their feminist message works like a charm on Maureen; further emboldened by strong support from her mother in yet another letter (cleverly retrieved by Mary), she now stands up to Troop. Despite a stillborn daughter and the influenza epidemic stalking the nation, the future looks bright for Maureen as she heads for Washington with Mary, leaving Troop, for whom appearances are everything, uncharacteristically ranting in the street. Simplistic and underplotted; the most interesting characters (Mary's mother, the eccentric grandparents) are confined to the margins. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.