So this is the kind of book Shannon likes. Can’t say I blame her. The story of a ten-year-old girl who’s family moves into the good part of town, a famous house, in Meander, Illinois maybe? Midwest, anyway. Her father has rather erratic luck in his business: some of his new projects work out fine, others crash and burn. This is a family of women used to placating the man. Dotty, the mother, is overweight, shy, and constantly apologetic. The elder sister is struggling with a weight problem of her own and with a lack of prettiness. Penny, the narrator has the same unattractive looks, but isn’t yet troubled too deeply by it. The move into the house because Chan, the previous owner is building a new house to live in by himself, now that his wife has taken his children and run off with his best friend. Dotty becomes captivated by Chan, a man who doesn’t think she’s stupid or incompetent or unattractive. He, in turn, admires her as being such a very normal sort of woman. While these new friendships are developing Daddy’s business—a new door factory, is failing to get off the ground. His partner is a gambler and a thoroughly charming man who’s lied about his background, his experience, everything else. Penny develops some weird habits. Even as the apparent standard of living for her family has greatly increased, the possibility of imminent bankruptcy (which is what her father occasionally threatens) scares her into hoarding food and learning penny-pinching tips. Dotty, at every crisis, volunteers to give up the Meander life and go live on the country farm they own. As things come to a crisis Dotty and Penny are spending the summer alone at the cottage—older sister has gone off to camp, Daddy is running around trying to find the dirt on his partner. Dotty takes “diet pills” that work wonders, works on her tan and her French, and emerges at the end of the summer a beautiful woman. Penny becomes even more eccentric but deeply attached to her mother.
On the day they return home Daddy can’t come with them to pick up the older sister at the station. Dotty goes next door with Chan and stays past time to go to the station. By then a camp counselor has called about Nancy being plastered and somebody better come get her. Daddy’s business partner, Archie, shows up and runs off to get her, leaving his coat. Dotty comes home finally with her sweater on inside out and rushes out to the station to pick up Nancy, but can’t find her purse anywhere (it’s hidden under Archie’s coat) and so leaves without her glasses. Archie brings Nancy home, Penny puts her upstairs, and then the cops show up to let her know her mother died in a car crash.
I loved reading this because the language is such a pleasure. Evans writes beautifully. It all seems to fall apart for me at the end, though. I hate the cliché of the fallen woman dying, particularly when the divine retribution comes so quickly. It just doesn’t seem right to leave Penny with this horrible secret about her mother. Besides, I find it more interesting to see how marriages survive despite the infidelity. Here’s my problem: Evans spends an entire school year setting up the problems in this family and then she has this weird summer interlude that is really only Dotty and Penny, then Dotty sleeps (we assume) with Chan and dies instantly. Daddy sells off everything (turns out to have a good supply of businesses to sell off) and takes the girls to live on the farm. I enjoyed reading about the repressed woman of the fifties and the way she tiptoes around her husband. I would rather see what coming home svelte and admired would do to her relationship with her husband that what death does to it. Irving can get away with that kind of melodramatic plotting, but I don’t think Evans can. Dotty’s death seemed a cop-out to me.