Coming to Terms Summary
by Anna Murdoch

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Coming to Terms

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The Mathieson family is in trouble. Old, irascible Uncle Percy, back in Poughkeepsie, New York, needs someone to care for him. Cousin Jolene, a nurse’s aide, agrees to leave her sleazy boyfriend in California and drive across the country in her bright orange Mustang to take care of him. Jolene brings along her wayward teenage son, George.

Uncle Percy has been building a replica of Noah’s ark in his backyard. George helps him finish it. In the process, he learns to love the old man. Uncle Percy softens under Jolene and George’s care, and this helps him accept his impending death.

One night, George discovers a stash of money behind a seat in the Mustang. It was hidden there by his mother’s old boyfriend, Don Diamond, who needs it to pay some Colombian drug dealers. Soon, Diamond shows up in Poughkeepsie looking for his dough. In the chaos that follows, family secrets are revealed. These force the Mathiesons to face their past, which was marred by unfulfilled fantasies and lost love, as well as guilt over a murder.

The narrator of this story is fourteen years old. Perhaps this is why the tone of COMING TO TERMS is consistently jejune. Murdoch overstates the obvious, her characters are hackneyed and sentimental, and her plot ties up as neatly as that of a television sit-com. This may be good news for those who like happy endings. Yet, anyone who cares about the truth of human experience will be frustrated and disappointed by this novel.