The Warrens--Jill, Edward, and their four children (Charley, Tom, Ask, and Cassie)--initially seem pleasantly eccentric and courageously resilient. Given to throwing parties whenever disaster strikes, they are preparing to celebrate Tom’s dropping out of college as the novel opens. Jill points out that this party is not merely celebrating failure, though; the Warrens are proud that Tom has chosen to come back home.
That decision reveals the strong family ties that hold the Warrens’ lives together. For Charley, however, the ropes are too tight. Feeling the need to escape, he burns down the house on his way out of town. When Edward comprehends Charley’s perfidy, he suffers a stroke from which he never recovers, physically or mentally. Ask’s love for his brother Tom leads to his death, and, by the end of the novel, Tom, too, plans to abandon the disintegrating family.
Whether Boswell is recording tragedy or comedy, he reveals a keen eye and ear for detail, and he shows deep insight into the adolescent mind. His depiction of Ask’s concern over his first date with Julie, for example, is at once hilarious and touching: “I don’t want to take her to dinner, because I would have to eat in front of her. And at the movies I would have to worry about putting my arm around her, when to do it, how long to leave it there.”
For all their foibles, the Warrens--with the exception of the malign Charley--win the reader’s affection, so that one shares Jill’s inability to understand “why we should have to pay so heavily for our mistakes.” Perhaps Boswell’s message, like Job’s, is that evil is ultimately incomprehensible. Yet one would like to find in a novel that logic so often missing in reality; that, after all, is why it is called fiction.