Pearl Tull, age eighty-six, lies dying as the book opens, and her mind ranges, chronologically disconnected, over her entire life. Through her memories, reflections, dreams, and occasional brief conversations with her son Ezra, she recalls, but not in chronological order, Beck Tull’s courtship just as she was beginning to accept spinsterhood, their impulsive wedding, the births of their three children, Beck’s totally unexpected announcement that he was leaving her, the various stages of the children’s growing up, their “trademark flaws,” her own failings, and her surprised realization of approaching death.
As she “skids through time,” she recalls some of the incidents that form the “plotlessness of life”; these small events include a visit to the beach and an outing in the country during which one of the boys (it is never certain which one) accidentally shoots an arrow at her and wounds her slightly. By the time this first chapter ends, the reader knows what Pearl and the members of her family are like and much about the kind of lives they have led.
Each of the succeeding nine chapters has as its heading a phrase taken from the chapter itself, developing and expanding the story that has been brilliantly suggested in the first chapter, entitled “Something You Should Know.” A particular member of the family is the central figure of each chapter: The focus is on Cody in chapters 2, 5, and 10; Jenny’s story is told primarily in chapters 3 and 7; Ezra is the main subject of chapters 4 and 9; Pearl is again the central figure in chapter 6; and Luke, Cody’s son, the only member of the third generation to have a chapter of his own, adds a different dimension in chapter 8.
The story is as simple—and as complicated—as that of any family. Beck and Pearl meet in 1924, marry shortly thereafter, and separate when Cody is fourteen, Ezra eleven, and Jenny nine years old. Cody goes to college, becomes a successful businessman, marries Ezra’s only love, Ruth Spivey, and they have one son, Luke. Ezra rejects college in order to work at Scarlatti’s, an elegant restaurant, serves a short stint in the army and is discharged for sleepwalking (a nice ironic touch), takes over the restaurant and eventually remodels it into the Homesick Restaurant, and continues to live at home with his mother in the Calvert Street row house. Jenny goes to college, then to medical school, suffers and recovers from a breakdown, becomes a pediatrician, is married three times, and has one daughter, Becky, and six stepchildren. While Cody catalogs his grievances against his mother and Jenny learns to “make it through life on a slant,” Ezra tries repeatedly to pull the family together by arranging celebratory dinners at his restaurant, dinners that are never finished because they always end in quarrels, angry accusations, and sudden departures.
The final chapter describes Pearl’s funeral, which Beck Tull attends, appearing to his children for the first time in thirty-five years. Once more Ezra tries to get his family to finish a meal together. Seated around the table are fourteen persons, including the children. Beck is impressed by this crowd, which seems to him to be “one of those great big, jolly, noisy, rambling . . . why, families !” Cody tries to correct this impression in his usual fashion: “You think we’re some jolly, situation-comedy family when we’re in particles, torn apart, torn all over the place, and our mother was a witch.” Ezra denies this, trying to set the record straight. The dinner is further disrupted by the unobserved departure of Beck during...
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a momentary crisis involving a choking baby. Everyone rushes off to look for Beck; Cody finds him, and for the first time learns Beck’s side of the story.
The book ends with the rest of the family coming up to Beck and Cody, who feels pulled toward them. He leads his father back to the others, and as he does so, he recalls the family outings of his boyhood, especially the archery trip, and sees his mother as she was then: young, calm, and lovely. In a characteristic embellishment, one of poignant beauty, Cody thinks that he also recalls “a little brown airplane, almost motionless, droning through the sunshine like a bumblebee.”