(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Mattie Ryder, newly separated from her husband, Nicky, has moved back into the home where she was raised after her widowed mother, Isa, moves to The Sequoias, a retirement home. The house is in need of many repairs, and Mattie is especially bothered by the rats she hears in the walls and ceilings. When she calls an exterminator to clear out the rats, the company sends out Daniel. It is his first day on the job and, unable to stand the thought of killing animals, he quits on the spot. Mattie feels sorry for him and offers to pay him to chop wood for her, although she has very little money herself. From that improbable start, Mattie and Daniel become close friends. Daniel often helps Mattie with projects around her house, plays with her children, Harry and Ella, and attends Mattie’s small Christian church with her each Sunday. Daniel’s wife, Pauline, is a beautiful, zaftig blonde, alternately depressed and passionate, who seldom joins in Daniel and Mattie’s activities. Mattie and Pauline have a civil relationship, but soon Mattie begins to wish Pauline were out of the picture so she and Daniel could be more than friends.

Mattie is struggling with several life changes. Having left her emotionally erratic husband, she must adjust to life as a single parent on a more limited income. Her two children, especially Harry, are dealing poorly with their parents’ separation. Mattie and the children are all jealous of Nicky’s young, blonde girlfriend, Lee. Isa is becoming more forgetful and dependent. Angela, Mattie’s closest friend, has moved to Los Angeles with her lover, Julie. Mattie’s beloved dog, Marjorie, is in failing health. The one positive factor in Mattie’s life is her church and her deep, personal relationship with her God.

Mattie is a spoiled, neurotic woman who has no identity or self-esteem without a man. It seems that she has never had to take responsibility for herself. She has few job skills—her only income is her salary as a part-time clothes model at Sears. She loses even that job after Nicky and Lee’s son Alexander is born, because she loses so much weight that she is no longer a size 12—an extreme reaction that demonstrates her addiction to Nicky’s attention.

Mattie’s only sibling, Al, lives nearby with his girlfriend, Katherine. Al fears that he could never be a good parent but is a loving surrogate father to Harry and Ella. Mattie depends on Al to help her with the increasing demands of their mother. They find a sensitive ally in Isa’s new friend Lewis, another resident of The Sequoias, who is kind, devoted, and gentlemanly toward Isa. He also begins to join Mattie and Daniel at church.

Mattie and Al had a tumultuous childhood. Their parents, Isa and Alfred, were part of a group of politically and socially liberal Marin County bohemians, and the children were often left to fend for themselves. Alfred, a lawyer, drank a great deal; Isa worked, cleaned, and nagged. The two fought tumultuously and were generally miserable together. Alfred left town monthly, allegedly on business trips to Washington, D.C. Al was a troubled and aggressive child and began drinking and using drugs as a young teen. Mattie responded to the chaos by trying to be as good as possible. As the two grew older, they became close, and Al achieved sobriety in his twenties after years of therapy.

Among the Ryders’ closest friends were Neil Grann, his daughter Abby, and his girlfriend Yvonne Lang. However, Mattie and Al long ago lost touch with their old friends. One day Mattie sees the old Volkswagen bus that her father owned in the 1970’s. She learns that the driver had bought it years ago, after her father had sold it to Neil Grann and Abby subsequently wrecked it. The driver still has the odd collection of objects that had been in the glove compartment, including a paint-can opener coated with pale blue paint and a tiny blue plastic tennis shoe, and he gives them to Mattie. Although she has never seen these two items, Mattie begins to keep the blue shoe with her as though it had some magical power and wonders where her father had used the paint-can opener, since they had never had a blue room in their home.

Lonely and jealous of the gorgeous Lee, Mattie had quickly resumed a sexual relationship with Nicky after they separated, often using problems with the children or the house as excuses to have him come over. Although she prays for the strength to resist this temptation, the reader may suspect she has little interest in having her prayers answered. Eventually, Nicky announces that he and Lee are expecting a child, and Mattie’s jealousy and guilt both intensify. Still she continues to sleep with Nicky, even after...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)