The center of this large, ambitious novel is a sudden act of violence—shocking, irrational, devastating. Theo Quick, a sensitive, thoughtful, twenty-eight-year-old member of a prominent family in Mountain City, North Carolina, leaves his home to meet his fiancée. Within hours he has murdered her and killed himself, the horror of the deed compounded by the witnessing presence of her small child. The facts of this terrible act, the motive and method, remain unclear and finally unknowable to the family, and it is their attempt to reconstruct reason, to create sense out of the inexplicable, that most concerns Gail Godwin. In truth, her point is that such an act does defy understanding; there are no simple answers, and each survivor must cope with guilt and grief in his or her individual manner.
Godwin presents her story through the perspectives of those people who best knew Theo, allowing them one or more sections to develop their picture of him. Such a narrative technique allows her to show how perceptions vary, how “truths” may conflict, how “reality” must often be a personal construction. It allows her to create a varied cast of characters (some more successful than others) whose lives are forever marked by Theo’s actions. It also causes confusion, however, as characters are introduced and then dropped, as narrative is explored through speech, letters, doggerel verse, and memory, as the story expands beyond the immediate events.
Godwin moves slowly from the outside in as she begins her story, giving the reader a sense of the Quick family first from the viewpoint of a longtime friend, Julia Richardson Lowndes. Julia is a professor of history at a university in North Carolina. She knows the importance of facts, but she also understands the difficulty of understanding those facts, of establishing an acceptable reality from them. Through Julia’s eyes, the reader observes the Quicks as the townspeople of Mountain City see them. Julia and her father, Neville, a retired schoolteacher, have long known Theo’s mother, Lily, and her daughter, Clare, the child of her first marriage. They remember Lily as a once-aspiring writer and know her now as an elegant, refined member of Mountain City’s upper crust. Julia grew up as best friend to Clare, and although they have gone their separate ways, the two women keep in touch and arrange to see each other whenever Clare makes a visit to Mountain City. Their times together are special even though Clare, now the successful novelist her mother had earlier aspired to be, has in a sense moved beyond Julia.
Julia also knows of Lily’s somewhat puzzling second marriage to Ralph Quick, her social inferior. Julia is uncomfortable around Ralph, whose background represents a country mixture of mountaineer and Indian. Although he has achieved success as a builder and has even managed to construct a private domain on his own mountain, a place known locally as “Quick’s Hill,” there is an element of shabbiness and failure about him, as well a kind of threat that disturbs and puzzles Julia. She sees some of this threat as well in Theo, Ralph and Lily’s son, whom she remembers both as a child and as a student for a short time in one of her own classes before he dropped out. Julia visits Quick’s Hill to see Clare during one of her rare visits home on the night before Theo’s suicide, and it is through Julia’s consciousness that the reader first learns of Theo’s death.
Following this preface to the story, Godwin moves into the family proper. First she turns to Clare, the novelist, who has tended to use her life and the lives of her family and friends as subjects for her novels. Living in New York, she has always been able to maintain a separateness between the flux of life and the order of art. Yet on this visit. Theo has challenged her. “Why don’t you write a book about something that can never be wrapped up?” he has asked. “What if you came across something like that in life? Would you want to write about it?” At the time Clare responds in an almost breezy manner. “If it was interesting to me, I might,” she says. “But frankly, Theo, a lot of the unwrappable chaos and meaninglessness and dreariness that goes on in the world doesn’t excite my curiosity at all.” Soon, faced with the utter horror of Theo’s deed, she can only stumble for clarity and form: “I mean, I...