Barrows, the co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, here too incorporates some of the same epistolary technique to tell the engrossing story of a small town in Macedonia, West Virginia in the summer of 1938.
In order to help pay the bills, the Romeyn family of Macedonia rents out a room to Layla Beck, the 24-year-old daughter of a senator from Delaware, who has coerced his brother Ben to give Layla a job with the WPA Federal Writers’ Project. [The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to provide work during the Great Depression.]
Layla’s assignment is to write a history of the town of Macedonia. Layla, who has lived an affluent and sheltered life, is convinced she is being sent to a place where the house of the supposedly respectable family with which she is to live is, like the town, “probably encrusted in coal dust, and I will probably die of starvation of lice within weeks.”
But as soon as Layla arrives and takes up residence with the Romeyn’s, the close-knit members of whom cycle in and out of the house, she finds she has been full of misconceptions, and after only three hours admits her “ignorance is already a scandal.” She quickly warms up to the Romeyn’s – Jottie, 35, who runs the household, her handsome brothers Felix and Emmett, her twin sisters Minerva and Mae (both of whom are married but who spend the week at Jottie’s house), and the children of Felix’s short-lived marriage, Willa, 12, and Bird, 9.
As she talks to the townspeople to learn its history, Layla discovers that this small town is full of charm and a complexity she never anticipated:
“I was expecting, not lascivious turnip farmers, exactly, but something close. Bumpkins, anyway. Instead, I’ve found a small town that looks like any small town, with wide streets, old elms, white houses, and a tattered, dead-quiet town square – all seething with white-hot passion and Greek tragedy.”
Layla becomes invested in her assignment, wanting it to be more than just a throwaway project, wanting her history of Macedonia “to spurn the dull and amuse the witty.”
And as she becomes more attracted to Felix, she wants to learn more about the Romeyns, who used to be one of the “first families” of Macedonia, when their patriarch owned The American Everlasting Hosiery Factory. In 1920, however, there was a fire that destroyed the factory and in which Vause Hamilton III was killed. Vause seems to be a forbidden topic in the Romeyn house and both Layla and spy-wanna-be Wilma set out to discover what really happened.
Discussion: Barrows doesn’t overdo her evocation of the time and place, but has an eye for selecting sensory details and incorporating them so thoroughly into the story that you can picture the scenes precisely in your mind, feeling the sweat dripping down your back, and the way an iced tea could taste like heaven on a hot day. When all the neighbors gather on hot nights on the Romeyn’s porch to gossip, it is as if you can actually hear their laughter against the backdrop of the clear starry nights.
Her prose is thoughtful, astute, and poetic at times as she limns life in that small town:
“Time softened on Sundays; it stretched itself out in vast rubbery lengths, and by two o-clock, there was more of it than would ever be needed for anything.”
I didn’t like one of the main narrators, young Willa, whose lack of understanding of the adult world causes her to be sneaky, resentful, and judgmental. Even at the end, after she gets an epiphany about hate and lack of forgiveness, she doesn’t apply such standards to herself. I couldn’t see how that unusual depth of understanding about others could co-exist with a lack of insight about her own behavior. “The truth of other people is a ceaseless business,” she says, in discussing her family. But what about the truth of herself?
By contrast, Jottie is a wonderful character – fiercely loving, affectionate, loyal to, and protective of her cobbled-together family, patient with and generous to her neighbors, and full of energy and humor in spite of the pain she carries and the burdens she bears.
The other characters are memorable as well, and make you wish you could have been along on Layla’s voyage of discovery of this memorable town.
Evaluation: I adored this book. Highly recommended!
Published by The Dial Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, 2015