THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER: A Novel

By Robb Forman Dew

Little, Brown. 327 pp. $24.95

Robb Forman Dew is the author of four novels, including Dale Loves Sophie to Death, for which she received a National Book Award. But The Truth of the Matter, the second installment in her trilogy about the Scofields of Washburn, Ohio, is more than a novel; it's an act of profound nurturing. To enter this book is to be fully received into a collective history, gauzily familiar from a distance, stunningly revelatory at close range.

The Evidence Against Her, the first book in the trilogy, chronicled the intersecting lives of a great number of characters from the 1880s through the 1920s. The Truth of the Matter concerns itself with just a few years in the middle of the 20th century, when Agnes Claytor Scofield is in mid-life. Widowed at 30, Agnes has raised four children, found much-needed work as a school teacher and taken seriously her stewardship of the impressive, difficult-to-maintain family house. When World War II calls each of her barely grown children away, Agnes finds herself alone for the first time.

Agnes offsets the "unnerving sense of being a tourist in her own home" by engaging in a companionable, gratifyingly physical relationship with Will Dameron, a widower and old friend from childhood. Chief among the rich rewards of this novel is Dew's depiction of Agnes's sexuality. Her capacity for physical pleasure serves as the one enduring solace in her life. During her early marriage to the charismatic but troubled Warren Scofield, Agnes had found herself "helpless against the heat that climbed her throat and turned her face a blotchy red. She would duck her head in an effort to become invisible, flushed as she was with the idea of sex." Surveying the family dinner table, she might look at her husband and wonder, "What are we doing . . . wasting our time with lamb chops. Bothering with lima beans, with a plate of cake?" But Agnes's grown children, Dew writes, think of her as a woman "lacking any hint of underlying sensuality," with her "low-to-the-ground practicality, her determined frugality, the little snap of satisfaction with the dailiness of her life. . . . They were enthusiasts; she was a skeptic; they were very nearly greedy in their anticipation of the future, whereas she seemed no more than resigned to it."

This discrepancy between one's essential self and one's public persona is a theme Dew carries over from The Evidence Against Her. The way in which it gets dramatized in The Truth of the Matter, though, is particularly painful. The reader is cast as the sole reliable witness to the luxuriant heart of the middle-aged Agnes. When Will asks her to marry him, she tells him he's "making something romantic out of . . . Just out of circumstances. . . . It would be like getting married because we dance well together!" Will counters her refusal by reasoning that she must be in love with him because "no woman in the world can enjoy herself so much in bed and not be in love." But Agnes knows that the "most seductive aspect of seeing Will -- the marvel of the sex between them in the face of a long-standing and dispassionate friendship -- was that no one knew about it. . . . The constant risk of being discovered and disapproved of -- that was all that came between her and the hopeless feeling of inconsequence."

The schism between the public and private self is echoed in Dew's depiction of the past. The whole coursing sweep of the agreed-upon history of a country or a family or even an individual is repeatedly juxtaposed with the very smallest of its component parts -- the isolated moment. It is one of the book's achievements that its narrator can dolly back and forth seamlessly from the panoramic to the intimate. This allows for an artful rendering of the misperceptions and misinformation that roil the Scofield family and cause so much unhappiness.

While the plot of the novel follows the marriages and births of the next generation of Scofields (trailing mysteries of paternity and identity), the real story here is Agnes's evolution. The novel opens with Agnes as a young, happily married woman incapable of comprehending what her husband means when he says, "Our whole lives are really just an effort to fulfill a sort of quest of that essential self. . . . But it does take a lot of strategy. . . . Living is a lot more tiring than people realize when they begin it." As the sorrow and guilt over the circumstances surrounding her husband's death catch up with her, the ingeniously complex Agnes becomes acquainted not only with the fatigue of living but also with her remarkable, essential self. *

Rachel Basch is the author of the novels "The Passion of Reverend Nash" and "Degrees of Love."