In King’s lovely but anguished novel, Daley Amory dreams of throwing off the collateral damage of her egotistical, hedonistic father, a WASP-ish, narrow-minded, upper-class conservative relic of the past.
Given Gardiner Amory's searing cycles of abuse and easygoing, drunken jocularity, Daley makes no attempt to sugarcoat him as a monster, a drunk and an ignorant bigot who poisons those around him with pure bile.
Gardiner’s casual bigotry and passive cruelty are a part of the Amery's everyday existence. From the opening pages of this story, Daley’s fate with her father is cast. Whether she likes it or not, she becomes a silent observer in her father's journey as she learns to tolerate his racist and alcoholic outbursts. It’s 1974, Watergate
fermenting in the background as eleven-year-old Daley unfurls the dramas of her childhood,
realizing she's going to have to find some way to cope if she wants to survive in Gardiner's salubrious and self-entitled world.
Gardiner has a reverence for the rules of tennis and a love of dogs, all uneasily concealed in his upscale stucco house in a suburb of Boston. But it’s just not enough for Daley’s mother who, as the novel opens, decides to leave after Gardiner’s drunken outburst against a group of underprivileged African-American children visiting for an afternoon of swimming in the cool, clear, turquoise waters of Gardiner’s lavish new pool.
This scene characterizes much of what follows. Daley spends so much of her later teenage and adult years trying to anticipate Gardiner’s unpredictable slides into abuse even when he looks like he loves her more than anyone else in his life. Gardiner is always drunk, his nose beading up with sweat while he rattles the ice bucket at the bar. Even when he seems happy and playful, the drinking squelches the pain of his prejudices, "a bubbling stew of self-hatred, ignorance and fear. "
A trip to St. Thomas with his new girlfriend, Catherine, does little to assuage Daley’s boiling sense of unease. Only the books of Edith Wharton seem to offer her any solace. Even with the occasional laughs (such as the time he reads them a lewd letter from the latest issue of
Playboy) her father’s good mood never lasts, his anger ramping up as he inexplicably seethes and mutters against the trials of life: “he made me forget my attachments to others - he made me reptilian.”
The author’s gifts lie in the domestic details as she elegantly brings to life Daley’s rising frustrations alongside Gardiner’s impassioned, variegated world, from his early days of cruelty in Ashing to his later years of steady daily drinking and constant disparaging remarks towards Daley and all those around him. Gardiner is precisely drawn, for the most part unlikable but always fascinating as he dives into his steaks coated with A-1 sauce and martinis with slashes of vermouth. For
certain, Gardiner is a man who likes to manipulate the facts to fit his narrow worldview.
What gives this book extra emotional depth is King's heart-rendering account of Daley’s private romantic struggles. There's a vital undercurrent of honesty to all of her joys and disappointments along with her friendships with Neal and Jonathan, the two other men who fill her life with love and expose many of her secret yearnings. Even when the tale stalls a bit towards the end, there’s the constant anger and the passions of Gardiner, always fully developed, along with the slow, sad path toward redemption where the painful complications of father/daughter love are so faithfully tested.