Daughters and mothers, fathers and daughters; in this amazingly skillful first novel, with its double-duty title, Kitty Burns Florey takes on the cyclic complexities of the parent-child relationship. And just in case such a task would seem too easy or commonplace, she thickens her plot with grandmothers (both by birth and by adoption), a grandfather, a not-so-maiden great-aunt and a heroine beatifically unfazed by her state of unwed pregnancy. Withal, Florey places these "family matters" in the shadow of an approaching death that, in one of those revelatory shifts in perception which only loss can bring, will leave each survivor isolated yet linked.
Betsy Ruscoe, 35, has only just allowed herself to be deflowered; prior to the affair which now so awes and delights her, all of her energies had been channeled into her career, culminating in a postion on the English faculty of Syracuse University, in her very own home town. Any energy that was left, after forays into the civilized thickets of 18th-century studies. Betsy had given over to her family, accepting them with nonjudgmental love.
Violet, Betsy's mother, is dying of lymphatic cancer. Propped up in bed at home, attended by two nurses, she has cheerfully switched her final allegiance from respectable, nutritious foods to a raffish diet of Mars Bars and Almond Joys. Frank, Betsy's grandfather, with whom Violet lives, is a handsome old man who has spent his life as a lawyer of no particular distinction. The phantom members of this household are Helen, Frank's dead wife -- who was not, as it turns out, Violet's mother and thus not Betsy's actual grandmother, either -- and Will, Betsy's father, whose weak heart failed before his daughter was old enough to have coherent memories of him. In addition, lurking across town, with a closeful of pantsuits in her condominium apartment, is Great-Aunt Marian, who has a skeleton or two in that closet as well.
Judd, Betsy's live-in lover, is sulky and hirsute, a photographer by trade and decidedly un-family-minded by nature. Thus, when Betsy finds herself in the family way, and family works up the courage to tell him, Judd takes only a few days to pack his gear and leave. Yet, despite her grief over Judd's desertion, Betsy is excited about bearing a child; after all, only a very small voice in her psyche had fantasized his staying and sharing her joy. Besides, at the inducement of Violet, who shrewdly ddployss her death-bed authority, Betsy has devoted her spare time to genealogical sleuthing. Violet, it seems, has never forgotten Marian's whisperings about Violet's true maternal descent. Through she has left this hinted-at mystery untouched for decades, Violet announces a passionate longing to know her real mother when it is almost to late. That this unknown woman might have predeceased her she dismisses as out of the question. Violet is emphatic: Betsy must find and produce a grandmother.
And so, in the early stages of her pregnancy, Betsy gives birth, as it were, to Emily. She turns out to be a 70-ish retired actress who is not entirely unwilling to be claimed. Though it can hardly be said she has ever forgotten her affair with Frank or even forgiven Marian for snatching the infant from her before the agreed time, she's now perfectly cozy in a vintage New England clapboard, with no family whatsoever but a contingent of fat, contented cats. How Emily -- a woman of independent means, tough-minded, long accustomed to physical and emotional tidiness, selfish of her private pleasures -- decides to play her role as wild-card in the birth-death-birth game she is invited to join is what gives this highly readable story its moments of highest imaginative satisfaction.
Emily, along with Betsy and Violet, is portrayed with careful strokes; each one is physically individuated: Betsy is rising (with life); Violet is falling (with sickness); Emily is wholly fastidious (preserved like a dried bouquet). Florey's men are only somewhat less real; their actions cause significant reactions, and the latter dominate the stage, even to the extent of these female reactions jostling each other for recognition, until they fuse in a blood continuum.
The need to acknowledge the deceits of familial self-protection enables Betsy, having found Emily, to defy Frank and genuinely to mourn her mother while breathing the fresh air of her own future. Florey's gracefully observant style informs our empathy for her characters, and, caught up in this tightly focused domestic drama. we feel, as she does, that family matters.