While Shreve’s last novel for adults, “A Student of Living Things,” was set in an unsettled near-future, her new book travels back to 1973, when the drama of the Senate Watergate hearings was playing daily on every household TV.
As the network news warbles about the administration’s cover-up, Lucy Painter, an unmarried mother in her early 30s who illustrates children’s books, is grappling with the consequences of her family’s long-buried secrets. In 1951, when she was 12, Lucy’s father — an adviser to President Truman — committed suicide in the midst of a personal scandal. After his death, Lucy moved with her shame-haunted mother from their house in the Capitol Hill section of Washington to New Mexico, where they changed their last name and were careful never to speak of their disgrace.
Since then, Lucy has made a habit of evasion. Frustrated by a dead-end love affair, she has just moved from Manhattan with her two children, Maggie and Felix, to a house in a northern subdivision of Washington, not far from where she had lived as a child. She’s been fighting with her daughter over refusing to divulge the identity of the girl’s father, admitting only that he lives in New York and is married to someone else. “This news,” Shreve notes wryly, “was not what Maggie wanted to hear.”
Eleven-year-old Maggie in turn makes her own contributions to Lucy’s culture of secrecy. “If you are planning to tell me I lied to you today about going to the library with Vivienne,” she tells her mother calmly, “I did lie and I’ll probably do it again because what we do in this family is tell lies.”
It turns out that their new neighborhood has its own share of secrets. Witchita Hills, a fictional enclave near the Maryland border, is a close-knit community of doctors and lawyers and their artsy or academic wives, with a whiff of smugness in its unpretentious prosperity. Residents walk blithely into other people’s houses without knocking, and the sign on the local community center reads “One for All and All for One.” Even so, behind every unlocked door there is plenty to hide.
Lucy’s next-door neighbor, for instance, is an attractive youngish widower who was denied tenure at Penn amid mysterious circumstances that intrigue more than a few of the married women of Witchita Hills. Other neighbors struggle with alcoholism, post-Vietnam War stress disorders and cancer. Then there’s the resident busybody, Zee Mallory, a mother of unruly twin boys who develops an obsessive interest in Maggie. Pretending to have the girl’s best interests in mind, Zee undertakes a campaign to lure her away from Lucy, with calamitous results.
While a bare plot summary makes this story sound melodramatic, its examinations of family and community, with their dual capacity to hurt and to heal, are subtly convincing. And the connections Shreve makes between the unfolding Watergate conspiracy and the personal cultivation of lies among the Witchita Hills residents are for the most part admirably restrained.
It’s all the more unfortunate, then, that so fixable a problem as poor editing should threaten to undermine this effective if modest novel. Most often it’s futile to complain about the proliferation of errors in trade books, a grim byproduct of contemporary publishing’s failing business model. But when so many period details are wrong in a novel whose success depends on a firm sense of time and place, the misfires are too distracting to ignore.
There were no Toyota Camrys in 1973; nor was there yet such a thing as Chuck E. Cheese’s, which debuted in 1977. Women didn’t yet routinely tote around yoga mats, and hair scrunchies would not appear for at least another decade. Meanwhile, some perfectly correct 1970s details are spoiled by misspellings: Dentyne gum appears here as “Dentine,” while Breyers ice cream shows up twice as “Bryers.”
Worthy mid-list novels have enough trouble justifying their existence in today’s publishing climate without being sabotaged by such small matters. Authors should not be penalized for these mistakes; they happen all the time, and it’s the editor’s job to correct them. A writer of Shreve’s caliber deserves better.
Rifkind is a writer in Los Angeles.
Susan Richards Shreve will be at the National Book Festival on Sept. 23.