Consider this sentence: "In all his years working in the White House, all his years of brothering, fathering, stepfathering, uncle-ing, and grandfathering, she was, Leonard Jakobs thought, the unhappiest child he'd ever encountered."
Hard to read, right? The syntax is tangled, with the result that you have to backtrack to understand what's going on. Now that wouldn't be so important except this happens to be the sentence with which Tabitha King's novel opens, and the problem it represents is typical of the book. While King proves in "Small World" that she has imaginative power, she isn't always careful about details, and her publisher apparently didn't see fit to give her the kind of editor who could have remedied these distracting defects. Could that be because she is Stephen King's wife? Did Macmillan conclude that that alone would sell enough books, without the bother of investing time and money in a careful editing?
However it happened, the first third of the book is marred by glitches. As the life of former first daughter Dorothy (Dolly) Hardesty Douglas unfolds, a number of facts emerge that don't quite fit -- at least not without further explanation. Adding up a few numbers reveals that Douglas' son must have joined the military and married an older woman when he was still in his mid-teens. But perhaps such precocity runs in the family, because Douglas herself, it's possible to conclude, married at 13. But how can that be? At 15 she was living with her family -- and posing for a nude portrait. But how can that be? What president would let his 15-year-old daughter pose nude, particularly when he is in serious political trouble? Particularly in the 1950s? King doesn't explain, though surely this all by itself would provide enough grist for a novel. (Suppose Julie Nixon had accepted Larry Flynt's offer of a million dollars to pose nude for Hustler . . .?
At any rate, after the first third of the book, most of the glitches disappear. Dolly Hardesty, middle-aged now but still glamorous, takes a lover, Roger Tinker, a young leisure-suited scientist. Dolly can't stand Roger's wardrobe, but he has other charms, including a device he has invented that miniaturizes things, and Dolly and Roger decide to add a little authenticity to a dollhouse collection Dolly has assembled.
They begin by shrinking a carousel, then a few precious goodies from a small New York museum (and within 24 hours the FBI is involved though I can't see a federal crime here). Next they do people, starting with Leyna Shaw, a television journalist who has aroused Doll's ire. They imprison Shaw in a scale-model White House, and King's account of the journalist's initial puzzlement and growing awareness of what has happened to her is compelling reading. The setting is particularly inspired since this isn't just any dollhouse, but one we know, and we turn the pages anxiously, waiting for Leyna to put the clues together.
Once King settles into the story, she comes into her own, hooking the reader so firmly with the Leyna Shaw episode that the question of whether these goings-on make sense fades before our interest in who Dolly's next victim will be. And as Dolly and Roger set out to visit her grandchildren, King advances the novel toward a conclusion that is satisfying without being predictable.
Along the way, King manages to suggest why the small world is a subject of enduring appeal. Dollhouses and tiny people permit Dolly Hardesty, for example, to have the kind of control that eludes her in real life. A full-size Leyna Shaw can humiliate her, but Leyna Shaw shrunken is at Dolly's mercy. In one of the novel's most effective and horrifying scenes, Dolly pokes and probes at the miniature woman, violating her body just as Shaw had once violated Dolly's sensibilities.
Toward the end of the novel, the heroine, flying by helicopter to a remote island off the Maine coast, is struck by how trivial man's works are when seen from the sky, "And then came the sea, where man's mark simply did not exist, and she shivered, feeling small and vulnerable." What the small world does, King rightly implies, is let us turn our usual situation around. Instead of the anxiety of being at the mercy of larger forces, we experience the heady feeling of being in charge ourselves.