Begun with a deliberate act of infidelity in 1957 and moving back and forth in time through the early 1960s to 2004, this unfolding New England drama speaks to the familiar dysfunction of families, the healing power of time, and the many ways to fashion forgiveness from pain. Luce Weld’s pursuit of also-married Ada Varick is single-minded, his young daughter, Jane, devoted to a father who is but a weekly visitor, a bootlegger with an unsavory reputation. When Luce disappears in 1957, rumors abound until a skull is found on a Sixties’ construction site with a hole through it. Perhaps this was Luce’s fate: a bullet through the head.
Ada has survived the infamy of her affair, her wild sons cutting a wide swath through the community and a cache of rumors that dog their paths through life. Grown-up, Jane finds security in her marriage to Carleton. Her daughter, Marne, returns home after testing the boundaries of place, rebellion barely quelled and reluctant to put down roots- until an unintended attraction to Ada Varick's son, Ray, that frightens and intrigues her. As Marne distractedly constructs a flock of origami birds for a local florist, the drama of the past infiltrates the present two by two: in the weekly Scrabble game played by Ada and her lover’s daughter; Jane’s relationship with the indomitable Carleton Dyer; and the inevitable tension of Marne’s resistance to Ray Varick.
Language is at the heart of this novel, words that evoke, stark images in Ingmar Bergman films, lines of poetry by T.S. Eliot, fragments that intimate loss and grief, comfortable competition between Ada and Jane as the Scrabble board fills and scores are tallied, secrets shared in a lifetime of words with number values, the hard work of forgiveness and accommodation. Strangely intimate, these characters who tell their stories to the reader, the geography of family, of infidelity, of children born and lost. Marne senses “something fugitive” in her mother’s eyes, the click of game tiles falling into place, scores kept, a son forfeit in a daredevil prank, the ebb and flow of family ties. As Marne seeks her place in a home crowded with memories, a distant mother, an offering of love, Tripp folds all together in a bittersweet blend that is fragile and elegant with moments of blinding clarity, the ties of fate and affection inextricably woven, the voices of the dead a chorus to the songs of the living.
I hadn’t meant to fall in love with Tripp’s novel - resented, in fact, the early intimacy of flawed characters: an unfaithful man with a reservoir of unconditional love for his young daughter and a penchant for trouble; the rowdy Varick son with an insular perspective of the world; a sharp-tongued daughter too quick to criticize her mother, in her way as stubborn as the infamous grandfather who boldly pursues the fiery Ada Varick: “The dead have their dirty fingerprints all over the lives of the living.” Between her deft and haunting prose, compassion for human imperfections and aspirations and the language of the heart, Tripp snares me as surely as a tourist in a foreign land, except that this terrain is all too familiar.