The central action of this ambitious novel set in North Carolina is an act of sudden and inexplicable violence. Theo Quick, the sensitive son of one of Mountain City’s most prominent families, murders his fiancee and kills himself in the presence of his fiancee’s child. Why Theo commits this terrible act is the mystery his family must attempt to solve. Gail Godwin tells the story through varied narrative techniques, starting with the omniscient narrator but soon moving into the more personal views of the individual characters who have been most affected by Theo’s deed. Among those who move the story forward are Julia Lowndes, a friend of the Quick family; Lily and Ralph Quick, Theo’s bewildered parents; Clare Campion, Theo’s half sister, now a successful novelist living in New York; Clare’s lover, Felix, a German-born Jew who observes this Southern family from the outside; Rafe, Theo’s disturbed younger brother; and Snow Mullins, Theo’s former wife, a mountain girl from the “hollers” of North Georgia. Each of these people has his own memory of Theo, and each deals with Theo’s death in his own way. It is their attempts to make sense of his actions that most concerns Godwin. In truth, her point is that such an act finally defies understanding; there are no simple answers and the survivors must cope with guilt and grief each in his own individual way.
Godwin’s book, for all the individual strengths it displays, is not a totally successful work. In a sense it attempts too much, for besides telling the story of this specific family and their reaction to tragedy, it also examines (as so many of Godwin’s works) the developing face of the South, its social intricacies, its shift of values, its blurring of identity. In doing so, the novel sometimes loses its direction. Also, some of its characters are more convincingly drawn than others, resulting in an unevenness of narrative authority.
Nevertheless, A SOUTHERN FAMILY is an important novel and quite often a rewarding one. It is a serious work by a respected artist.