The book is set mostly on Martha’s Vineyard, before and after World War II. In a now perhaps too often used ploy, the story is told by five characters who go through episodes of family jealousy, infidelity, drug addiction, marriage, being part of the sleazier Hollywood scene, mental disorders, interspersed with parties, tennis matches, cocktails. A murder provides a focal point to much of the plot. Despite lots of interesting ideas put across rather successfully, like Nick doing good rather disastrously, and tense girl Daisy only able to gain a personality late in the book, I thought that this was a case of too much plot spoils the story. Cousin Ed’s issues, aunt Helena’s way of crumbling, Nick’s realisation of what sort of person she is, Hughes’s experience of war and of that whole thing called life, Daisy’s gradual comprehension of others’ behaviour, all these compete for reader attention and in the end, I find that a degree of cannibalisation occurs.
What I really appreciated, however, was the development of one character: Hughes. Previously, my mental image of an American WWII soldier was of a young, handsome man, who is helpful and kind, derogatory yet envious about quaint old European ways and veers between naïveté and cynicism about the state of affairs he is thrown into. This image is probably a synthesis of war films and JD Salinger. I had another mental image: one of the middle-aged American man in the fifties and sixties. This one is handsome in a more florid way, comes back from the office, to be greeted by an improbably coiffed, dressed and shod Grace-Kelly-with-an-apron figure, mixes mean martinis and is the undisputed chief barbecue operator type of paterfamilias. Well, thank you for bearing with me so far, because the point I’m trying to make here is this: Hughes’s story provided me with a credible narrative to bring those two caricatures together, making him entirely believable and engaging.
This is a debut novel, which is maybe the reason why it’s crammed with mostly good stuff. But a little more breathing room might have allowed the characters to ring truer.