CALPURNIA

Anne Scott Beller, Author, Anne Scott, Author
Anne Scott Beller, Author, Anne Scott, Author . Knopf $24 (304p) ISBN 978-0-375-41380-3
Reviewed on: 06/02/2003
Release date: 08/01/2003
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Scott's debut novel unravels the tangled family secrets surrounding an ancestral Philadelphia manse and its deceased owner, Maribel Archibald Davies, the well-born painter and family matriarch who led a quasi-bohemian life (complete with free love and scandals, but minus the poverty). Elizabeth Oliver, the manager of the estate sale, arrives at the mansion, Calpurnia, to discover a morass of resentments and scheming among Maribel's relatives and ex-hangers-on. The mysterious circumstances of Maribel's death (murder? suicide?) foster an atmosphere of suspense. Maribel's prodigal son, Coby, has astounded his relatives and even himself with a series of spectacular failures, which lead to much suspicion about his role in his mother's death. Nina English, Maribel's beloved niece, harbors her own furtive intentions, which she covers by graciously yet pointedly accusing others. Neighbor Peg, reverent and protective of the deceased, keeps an eye on all from behind the safety of her window curtain. With her own jumbled secrets to hide, Elizabeth feels a growing connection to the enigmatic Maribel as she observes the complex, sometimes absurd efforts of the grande dame's family to act as if they are still living in the gracious era of Maribel's heyday. Each new character adds elements of intrigue and extra twists, but the overwhelming number of faces—close to 30 names are tossed about—also serve to confuse the reader and defuse some of the suspense. The intriguing, old-fashioned plot and memorable details draw the reader in, but this promising yet uneven novel never quite gathers force. (Aug. 19)

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