My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Helen Anstruther has experienced a lot of loss in her young life. Her mother died when Helen was only three, and she has been raised by Nonie, her paternal grandmother, who dies shortly after the novel opens in the spring of 1945. Helen’s father is an unhappy, acerbic school principal who drinks too much, and when the school year ends, he takes a temporary job in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, doing secret war work. Because Helen needs looking after, he hires a distant cousin, the twenty two year old Flora, to be her nanny for the summer.
Helen is an intelligent, curious girl who has spent most of her time with adults, which is reflected in her speech and attitudes. She misses her grandmother terribly, and imagines hearing her voice when she needs advice. Helen is full of herself, and thinks she is superior, and Flora impresses her as a simple minded hick. Much of the novel centers on Helen’s “managing” Flora so she can have her own way. While Helen is often sarcastic and disdainful, Flora is unwaveringly caring and supportive. In July, Helen loses her two closest friends when one moves away and the other is hospitalized with polio. Though she regrets the situation, she rather cold-heartedly fails to contact either of them. When discharged paratrooper Devlin Finn, now a grocery delivery man, makes an appearance, both Helen and Flora are smitten. Their rivalry will bring about a tragedy.
The novel is narrated by Helen herself, now a successful, aging author. Part dialogue and part internal rumination, with occasional voice-overs from the adult Helen, the story of this fateful summer plays out slowly, as befits the warm, often sultry climate of the south. Just as the tempo seems unbearably stagnant, however, adult Helen drops a hint about things to come, which sharpens interest and causes a low, simmering sort of tension. The young Helen, of course, is mean because she’s bored and scared; abandonment is one of the books major themes. As the book draws to a close, adult Helen meditates on remorse and recovery. There were times “when I felt I had to keep from losing the little I had been left with, including my sense of myself,” she writes. “I thought I knew everything there was to know about her [Flora], but she has since become a profound study for me, more intensely so in recent years. Styles have come and gone in storytelling, psychologizing, theologizing, but Flora keeps providing me with something as enigmatic as it is basic to life, as timeless as it is fresh.”
Simple but tightly managed plot and well fashioned characters (even the house itself functions as a character!) make this novel a memorable one.