In the present of the novel, at the end of the twentieth century, Catherine Hubbard is a fifty-two-year-old mother of three grown children. Only the oldest, Karen, lives anywhere close by. Twice-divorced and at loose ends when she learns that she and her brother Lawrence have inherited their grandparents’ house, Catherine leaves San Francisco to go back to the territory of her childhood, specifically to the old house in West Barstow, Vermont, where her grandparents lived for many years.
Catherine is unclear whether this is an escape from her old life in urban California or the making of a new life in small-town New England. Truly, she risks little by making this change, taking a leave of absence from her job and hedging about how long she will stay. Ultimately the novel portrays little change in her, although she has had an engrossing few months learning more about her decidedly interesting grandmother, Georgia.
When Georgia is still a teenager, her mother dies after a long and painful struggle against cancer, leaving Georgia, the eldest daughter, in charge of the household. Her father is a hardware salesman gone from home five days a week. Georgia feels isolated but content with her role. Suddenly, the family doctor, John Holbrooke, pronounces that she has tuberculosis and sends her to a sanatorium to recover. Later, after Dr. Holbrooke and Georgia marry, he admits that she may not have had the disease after all, but that he thought she was stifling in her family situation.
Georgia has “secrets” to reveal to her husband as well. In the “san,” she became aware of patients sneaking around for sexual encounters, and soon she and Seward Wallace, who at seventeen is three years her junior, are going into the woods or a shed to make love. The sexual encounters are exciting but not very satisfactory for her. Seward urges her to run away with him to Denver, or anywhere, to marry and be free from the restrictions of the “san.” Georgia is flattered by his need for her, but she intuits that he is dying and she knows she does not love him in the same way he loves her. She tells him she must stay in the “san” and get well. He leaves, and not long afterward she returns home, where her father is about to marry a local widow. Dr. Holbrooke promptly asks Georgia to marry him. Before she accepts, she confesses that she is “damaged goods,” which he interprets as a reference to her tuberculosis. When he later learns she meant her sexual liaison with Seward, it takes him some time to recover. Later, when she is eight months pregnant with their first child, she learns from Seward’s sisters that he has died and that they want to bring his body back to Vermont for burial. Georgia secretly tucks away money she gets from her husband and sends them the money they need for this, and on her own she drives John’s car to Seward’s dismal funeral in the rain. Afterward, she reports this to John, which again stirs his jealousy. Despite all this, they reach a level of mutual acceptance and have a long and relatively happy marriage. He precedes her in death by several decades, and she lives on until age eighty-eight, apparently content.
Catherine pieces together bits about her grandmother’s life from diaries that Georgia had kept meticulously over the years, diaries Catherine finds in a trunk in the attic of the old house. This gathering of a life preoccupies Catherine for the few months she lives there. It becomes her mission to understand both the grandmother and the grandfather that she had loved.
Catherine had lived with Georgia and John for a while after her mother was taken to a psychiatric hospital, and she credits them with kindness and attention to her needs. They were the ones who urged her to spend a summer in Paris with their daughter Rue, giving Catherine an excuse to break away from the high school boy with whom she was having an unsatisfactory sexual affair. Years later, divorced from her first husband, Peter, she brings her three children across the country to Vermont to her grandparents’ house for a few months of that same comfort and sense of stability she had found there as a teenager.
Georgia’s diaries are factual but neither detailed nor informative about how Georgia felt about the events she records. Thus, much of the story of her life is interpreted and indeed invented by Catherine. Sometimes...
(The entire section is 1777 words.)