Acts of God

Mary Morris, Author
Mary Morris, Author Picador USA $23 (256p) ISBN 978-0-312-24663-1
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
Paperback - 260 pages - 978-0-312-26421-5
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""My father used to say that sometimes you think you know a person, only to find out that you don't,"" says narrator Tess Winterstone at the casual, engaging beginning of Morris's (House Arrest) new novel, predicting what readers may come to feel about this opaque heroine. At 48, Tess vacillates in a small California town with no real job, no close friends and few prospects. She feels ""stable"" to have been divorced only once. The story knits together her contradictions, showing how a boomer generation individual like Tess could exist indefinitely on a fault line. Encouraged to attend her 30th high school reunion by her grown, slacker children, Tess returns to her hometown, outside Chicago, where she encounters her erstwhile rival, Margaret Blair. Flashbacks to her school days explore Tess's tense friendship with penurious, fatherless Margaret, who inserted herself into Tess's in-crowd and stole her boyfriend. Margaret and her mother, Clarice, were a more integral part of Tess's family than she suspected, however. Tess's mother was a typical '50s homemaker, and her father, Victor, was a traveling insurance claims adjuster whose work involved visiting the scenes of natural disasters. After the reunion, rekindled friendships and an affair with Margaret's husband eventually force Tess to confront deeply buried memories and to realize that Victor's travels were an alibi for some very serious deceptions. The mechanics of this domestic intrigue are all that is revealed, however, because Morris barely scratches the surface of her characters. Dialogue is meticulously offered, details of the suburban town and the era's social mores are aptly noted, but Tess is never a knowable person, and other characters who should be vividly rendered remain sketches. Tess claims to have an ""archival mind""; perhaps a novel about family secrets requires a narrator who can interpret as well as archive the facts. (Sept.)
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