(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In 1987, while working on A Southern Family, Godwin wrote "All my protagonists . . . disguised by gender or species, occupation or social class or hardly disguised at all—are parts of myself." This novel, apparently written in response to a shattering event in Godwin's own family, has at least eight protagonists—and, if we believe Godwin's statement, each one is a part of its author. The central figure, Theo Quick, dies before page eighty of this six-hundred page book, after he has spoken for himself in only scattered bits of dialogue. The remaining seven major characters—Theo's half sister, Clare; his estranged wife, Snow; his brother, Rafe; his mother and father, Lily and Ralph; Clare's boyfriend, Felix; and her best friend, Julia—spend the rest of the book searching for keys to Theo, and, in doing so, they learn a great deal about themselves and reveal even more to the reader. At the same time, they all examine class and, of course, the Southern family.

Theo was a gentle and confused young man who alternated between charming and repelling those he should have loved and those who should have loved him. At twenty-eight, he had yet to find a satisfying direction for his life (not all that unusual in the Quick family), and his only passion was his son Jason. During the last twenty-four hours before he takes his own life in a dramatic murder/suicide, he speaks with each of the other protagonists, and in each case, what he said would be interpreted as an unanswered plea for help. The one exception is Felix who, although he had not spoken with him for months, had his own reasons for feeling that he had let Theo down.

In the remainder of the book, each of the survivors tries to figure out what motivated this peaceable and romantic, if antisocial, young man to commit his final violent act, made more violent by the fact that it was witnessed by a child. Julia, a college professor, who sacrificed a promising career to return to her home town and a second-rate university to care for her ailing parents, seems to be the most stable of the lot, but her exploration of her own contribution to Theo's suffering reveals a profound defensiveness about the uncomplicated life she has chosen.

Ralph has made a tenuous leap from his working-class background into the prosperous middle class, but his efforts to endow his sons with its benefits have been unproductive at best, destructive at worst. Not unlike the lawns of his not-too-distant cousins in Appalachia, Ralph's house is surrounded by the more luxurious detritus of his economically successful life. Neither of his sons was comfortable in the prestigious prep school he attended, and each contrived not to graduate. Ralph is left to pick up the pieces...

(The entire section is 1116 words.)