This is a book I didn’t enjoy quite as a much as I thought I would, and I’m finding myself hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly why. All the right elements are in place — a three-generation drama about a family of strong, eccentric women, an intriguing historical setting reaching back to early 20th century America, and a literary mystery. Yet the elements didn’t quite come together for me.
Beloved and critically-acclaimed novelist Harriet Wolf has died. She has left behind six beloved books unfolding the story of the same pair of characters. She’s also left behind her daughter, Eleanor, and Eleanor’s two chalk-and-cheese daughters, Ruth and Tilton. What Harriet Wolf may also have left behind, her fans like to think, is a seventh book that will complete the story. But if there is a seventh book it’s hidden in the house where Harriet died, where Eleanor tries to keep Tilton packed in layers of cotton wool (metaphorically, but almost literally) to protect her from the world. This is the house to which the runaway Ruth returns to wreak havoc on the lives of her mother and sister and the memory of her grandmother, and to uncover family secrets left and right.
As I said, this should be the recipe for a novel that pushes all my buttons (history, literature, families, women) but I found it hard to finish. The only parts I found truly engaging were the flashback scenes narrated (posthumously) by Harriet, telling about her early life growing up in a home for “mentally defective” children at the turn of the twentieth century, and falling in love with a fellow “moron” before being unexpectedly set free to begin life outside the institution. If Harriet’s story had been the whole novel, I would have found it engrossing, but I never connected with Eleanor, Ruth or Tilton as characters, so I wasn’t as engaged with their parts of the story. However, it may just be a matter of personal taste. Not every book appeals to every reader, and I can’t say there’s anything terrible or badly-written about this book. Maybe you should give it a try — you might like it better than I did!