White’s small novel examines the relationships between childhood memories and present realities, the normal stresses of a recent marriage exacerbated by the tragic death of a seventeen-year-old local girl in a Midwestern town. When Nowell and Vivian Gardiner give up their small city apartment and move to a rural area to help prepare Nowell’s deceased grandmother’s home for sale, they view it as an opportunity to spend quality time together. Nowell will finally be given the peace and isolation to finish his second novel.
The house was built by Nowell’s grandfather—sturdy and well-crafted, if in sore need of repair and updating. Nowell settles in to the large room that faces the woods at the rear of the property—the woods where Chanelle Brodie’s body was found—a sheet hung to provide privacy and discourage intrusion. Vivian tackles the sorting and boxing of Betty Gardiner’s things, from a kitchen filled with collected teacups and oddments to an attic stacked with furniture and boxes of old clothing. Given the recent death of the girl on their property (temporarily ruled an accident), there is an air of mystery that, blended with Nowell’s bouts of secrecy and unwillingness to communicate, suggests more afoot than Vivian expects when she joins her husband after a short visit with her parents.
Instead of the quiet togetherness Vivian expects, a visit from Nowell’s brother, Lonnie, and his new wife, Dorothy, adds more than a little drama to the newly formed household. Both men are tall and rangy, both wives petite, the brothers close to their widowed mother, who leans particularly on Nowell for handling the problems that frequently overwhelm her. The family dysfunction runs deep, a painful reality both wives witness when the brothers come into conflict, even more likely when Lonnie has been drinking. Vivian cannot help but resent how uncommunicative Nowell is when they are alone and he is writing, albeit easily distracted once Lonnie and Dorothy arrive, willing to abandon his writing for fishing or other day-long excursions.
Though the wives are comfortable sharing living quarters, the brothers fall frequently into escalating arguments, their relationship hampered by unresolved issues, especially their father’s connections in the area. There is an assortment of other characters: a local woman and her husband who befriend Vivian and Nowell; the distraught mother of the dead girl, still searching for answers; and a mysterious neighbor with ties to the men’s father and their past history. The tension so carefully built at the beginning dissipates by the end, as though the author has used it only as an unnecessary conceit, hardly worth the ripple it creates in the narrative. While the story and the relationships are interesting, the theme of the novel feels a bit unfinished in an ending that is more smoke and mirrors than real drama.