The inability to connect with others, loneliness among the privileged classes, and the pain of concealed truths within families are Bingham's dominant themes. The focus of the story shifts from middle-aged Louise, who wishes only to live out her days in the once-fine family home caring for her mentally disabled sister Shelby, to their young cousin Tom, an excruciatingly sensitive and self-conscious college student who has difficulty making friends and adjusting to life away from home. Tom's father, a state senator, insists that Shelby, who occasionally lapses into embarrassing fits, be institutionalized. Louise attempts to obtain her release. Bingham writes evocatively of the South and the paralysis of unmet psychological needs. Her style is reminiscent of Eudora Welty, yet some confusing details in the story detract from the novel's impact. An optional purchase.-- Sheila Riley, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, D.C.
"There isn't much sap in this family anymore. There isn't much juice." This striking dissection and display of a family echoes the author's memoir, Passion and Prejudice (1989), in which she exposed what she saw as the smothering mores of the Bingham family empire. Here is Bingham's fictional intuition of the minor miseries and pleasures within the great safe house of enveloping civilityin 1958 North Carolina, Kentucky, and Cambridge, Mass. Spare, plain, single, 45-year-old Louise Macelvens is pleased with small victories few would understand, like persuading sister Shelbyhuge, damp, severely mentally impairedto eat breakfast. Tending Shelby gives Louise substance ("after all...we are born to manage, not to love"). Soon, however, generous cousin "Big Tom," a Kentucky state senator, will ship Shelby, fresh from a frothing fit, to a mental hospitalfor Louise's sake. Louise aims to get her home. In Cambridge, meanwhile, college student Tom, 19, only surviving son of Big Tom and wife Mugsie (his charming, "odd" brother Paul has been dead a year) flounders in his loneliness, his guilts, and sexual infantilism. He loses a girl and speeds home, distraught, to his old nurse (and maybe his blue baby blanket?). The parents glide around Tom, seemingly impervious, yet worryingwithout touching: Big Tom, a whiz at "controlling the distances that separate him from the other people"; and cool, pretty Mugsie, descending the stairs "like a hawk on an air current." In letters to Tom (she hopes he'll help her get Shelby), Louise treats him to some family historydry old men, pretty women in lives of duty and drab, and two suicides. Louise does spring Shelby (in abitterly comic maneuver), and her advice to young Tom, characteristically stalled (Louise's estimate of him as "a fool" seems on target), is as cruel as truth as she sends him north "to beat your brains out against a stone wall." A shriving family portrait gallery, both compassionate and ruthless.