THE FIRST MIRACLE is the baby, Julia Howells, born bluish and frail, but perfect, while her teenaged mother, stricken with polio, lies limp as a crushed flower inside an iron lung. "September 1, 1937," the baby's grandfather records it in the family Bible. "The birth of Julia was extraordinary . . ."
In Miracle Play, her fourth novel, Susan Richards Shreve gives us a family in love with its own mythology. The Howells are rememberers. They are chroniclers. They have fitted out their Bible with extra pages between Genesis and Exodus and Leviticus, and it is here they keep their own parables and miracles, the details of Julia's birth and her grandfather's death. They are a family who live from event to event as consciously as actors go from scene to scene, and Shreve stages their story as deftly as if a curtain had dropped between chapters.
Both the settings and the characters of this book will be familiar to those who have read Shreve's other work. Her territory is roughly the region we know as "Middle Atlantic," stretching from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., with occasional trips north to New York or south to Virginia. Her people live on the edge of fame. They are the children of senators and newspaper columnists. They attend -- and are often expelled from -- Friends schools. They are at ease with good china, French wines and loyal servants. Most often, the action begins in days gone by, the '30s, the '40s or the '50s and some powerful props evoke the times -- war telegrams, iron lungs, Sen. Joseph McCarthy asleep in a chair.
In Miracle Play, Shreve combines these same incredients, but with new results. Her story here is strong and strange as a potion, her characters unabashedly intense. This book has enough energy to make those previous works seem like dress rehearsals and their heroines -- Natty Taylor in Children of Power or Susanna MacPherson in A Fortunate Madness -- understudies for the part of Julia Howells.
Julia, the miracle baby, grows up on the family farm near New Hope, Pennsylvania. It is a compound of houses, a cocoon of Howells, including Julia's parents, Nat and Cally; her younger brothers, Peter, Caleb and Bumpo; and her grandparents, Rachel and John. From the start, Julia understands what it means to be a Howells. She knows the story of her great-grandmother's suicide and her great-great-grandmother's love affair. She knows how guide her mother's wheelchair down the grocery store aisles and how to slow the stream of her brother Bumpo's steady tears. What she does not know, at first, is how to deal with the burden of her family's love.
"It's too much when you're sweet to me," she tells her father one spring night as he sits in her room watching her rehearse for her part in a school play. Nat is thin and ill. He takes hold of his daughter's hand. She pulls away.
"You know what I mean?" she asks.
"I know the only difficult role for you to play, Julia," he says, "is the one you were born to."
Tragedy seems to hover and circle about the Howells family like some dark bird of prey. "The wings. The wings," Julia cries, staring at the ceiling. She is practicing for her part as Abigail in The Crucible, but, in fact, a new tragedy is always there, ready to swoop down into her own life again. The Howells are victims of polio and cancer and third-degree burns. They have disturbed children and doomed love affairs. They lose their jobs and, sometimes, their minds. After a while, Shreve's audience may get a bit jumpy, expecting disaster where there is none, tensing for the rush of those wings when nothing is looming after all. But the Howells themselves believe in their tragedies much the way they believe in their miracles -- the same way they believe in heirloom lace and family portraits and the sweet, smothering clutch of their grandmother's hugs.
"Dear Julia," John Howells' letter says, "Write the love stories and tell the truth about them." With these words, the Howells Bible passes down to Julia, breaking tradition and falling into the care of someone ill at ease with love stories. Julia Howells, the thin, dark miracle child who escaped into her high school plays, has become Julia Howells Kendall, a thin dark woman who escapes into professional theater. She writes plays now, plays which cocoon -- away from the farm where her husband is too quiet and her son too loud; where her grandmother takes in odd, needy boarders and her mother lives with another woman; where her brother Peter broods about his ruined career and her brother Bumpo bumbles into fortune and fame; where, most of all, everybody loves her too much. Julia Howells Kendall writes plays to escape. And, naturallyu, inevitably, every play she writes is about her family.
There is a lot to keep track of in a book like Miracle Play, a story that spans 40 years and involves three generations as well as the ghosts of several others. This could easily be "saga" material, the stuff of which TV mini-series are made, and an author less meticulous than Shreve might have worked it this way. But the Howells' lives don't fall into formulas. They are real and messy lives, played out in a thousand small episodes. And where Shreve shines is in directing her characters through these scenes behind the scenes -- Rachel eating pie in her kitchen, running her finger through the juice; Nat and Cally, lying in bed, laughing at their own weak and patchy bodies; John Howells, old and dreaming, out in a rowboat with his small great-grandson.
These are the everyday miracles of this book. They are the love stories which Julia Howells finally learns to tell the truth about.