The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Depending upon whether one regards attitudes or behavior as more telling, one could call Nell Strickland an outsider playing the role of insider or an insider who prefers to think of herself as an outsider. She has lived in Mountain City ever since she was fourteen, she has gone to the book club meetings presided over by the pretentious Theodora, and she has been for forty years the respected, popular wife of a respected, popular Mountain City lawyer. Yet, even if Nell goes through the motions of conventional propriety, she views those rituals and the class consciousness that dictates them with a somewhat satiric eye.

Insofar as Nell’s (usually accurate) satiric vision is a defense against rejection and pain, it is offset by her compassion and her vital interest, as a former nurse and as a mother, in helping people to live well and die comfortably. Although, after Leonard’s death, retreat from life and from people is a temptation for Nell, the needs of others cause her to become more fully engaged in life than ever. It is Nell who mobilizes the women of the book club when Wickie Lee goes into labor during a meeting; Nell who eases the last days of her old school friend Merle Chapin; Nell who finds happiness and even passion married to Merle’s widower, Marcus.

If, out of deference to Leonard, Nell has largely suppressed her skeptical, defiant side, Cate is the rebel Nell has never allowed herself to be: a twice-divorced, 1960’s-style liberal, who in 1970 found herself briefly in jail for leading her students from a New York girls’ school in a demonstration at the Lincoln Tunnel to protest the invasion of Cambodia. It should be noted that, in this story of family relationships and correspondences, Cate’s activism results not only from the critical perspective she has inherited from Nell but also from the idealism she has absorbed from Leonard. She cannot see a wrong without wanting to right it and has done the sorts of...

(The entire section is 797 words.)