Apart from Hall’s fluid, intelligent prose, there’s not much to like about this sophisticated literary novel.
The Adair family is mostly a group of self-absorbed, rather irritating people who live in a ramshackle Beacon house and are pining for their ancestral carriage house,
which is currently deteriorating on their neighbor’s property. Cleverly channeling Austen’s classic novel
Persuasion, Hall manages to keep us reading.
Beginning with the voice of her main character, William Adair, Hall explores his thoughts of his marriage to Margaux, his relationship with his three beautiful daughters--Diana, Elizabeth, and Izzy--and his first love, Adelia, who grew up playing with William in the family’s beloved carriage house. William’s journey of understanding himself and his needs since Margaux’s long, grueling fight with dementia is laced with a regret that has pervaded his being for as long as he can remember.
As William speeds along the treacherous curves of Kennedy Drive, propelled by his desire to see Diana play tennis at the Beacon Ladies championship, he breathes in the smell of early summer and basks in vivid recollections of bringing his young family to the Club. His daughters have been such brilliant girls and are a source of pride, although at twenty-eight Diana is no longer
a prodigy and has lost something despite their efforts. While Elizabeth seems distant, returning from Los Angeles after suffering a broken marriage, Izzy at eighteen has a defiant streak and operates mostly on her own, unmonitored by the authorities and lost in a world of her own elaborate imagination.
The family is rocked by William’s sudden stroke. Elizabeth’s immediate reaction is to become the family matriarch. All year she’s been floundering and lacking a role. Then childless Adelia returns to the family fold after ten years. Of course, Adelia can’t sleep in the same room, but she can live under the same roof. Meanwhile, Margaux gardens in the shadow of the carriage house, oblivious to its disrepair as it stands “ragged against the sky,” a ghost of its former glory.
Never one to be distracted by self-doubt, Diana (together with Adelia) proposes the idea of removing and repairing the house. The project is a panacea for William, who feels as though he’s losing his daughters in a family that seems increasingly adrift at sea with only Adelia’s hand on the tiller. The result is devastating, a grand drama of clashing personalities who refuse to compromise or let go of their pasts.
The carriage house--"never lived in and full of ghosts"--becomes a powerful symbol for Hall’s architecture of love. Louise, Margaux’s Australian caregiver, reads Margaux’s journal and finds herself forced to insufferable routines of the people she loathes. “That carriage house is my family,
its history” is William’s simple phrase that becomes more significant for father and his daughters as circumstances deliver them to the brink of tragedy and imbue the story with the all-pervasive sense of melancholy and a depression that
hovers around William's ruminations.
Tennis plays an important role as a trenchant metaphor for the Adairs’ competitive nature.
The problem with these people--and indeed everyone in this novel--is that they’re just not that likable. While the story is quite lovely and intelligently written, the Adairs' joy of resolution and their revelations are muted by the lack of simple dramatic satisfaction and overwhelmed by too much conceitedness and stupidity.