As she proved in her first novel, Vanished, and in the equally compelling A Dangerous Woman, Morris can depict society's outsiders-people with bleak presents and no futures-with rare understanding and compassion. Here, she portrays an entire community, a small town in Vermont during the summer of 1960, and then focuses on one family, the Fermoyles. With no support from her alcoholic ex-husband Sam, Marie Fermoyle has struggled for eight years to raise her three children. She is sharp-tongued, bitter, resentful and driven nearly to distraction by unending money worries and her own shame at being a poor divorcee in a staunchly Catholic town. The arrival of mysterious Omar Duvall with his con man's spiel of sudden riches brings Marie hope that she can change her dead-end existence. Among the 30 or so characters, there are no happy people: in fact, at first, one thinks this will be just an unbroken litany of sour, wasted lives, people mired in frustration and desperation, hiding tawdry secrets. But, although the exposition is long and leisurely, one is soon caught in the web of Morris's narrative, particularly in Marie's manipulation by Duvall, who sponges off the family while appearing to offer Marie the love she desperately craves. Meanwhile, her children-teenaged Alice and Norm, and fearful 12-year-old Benjy-are out-matched by the oily Omar, and they undergo their own torments as adolescents shamed by their parents and miserably conscious of their poverty. Innocent Benjy holds a secret so terrible he doesn't even fathom it until it is almost too late to avert tragedy. Morris weaves the taut strands of her plot with remarkable skill, revealing how people with no financial security and few mental resources are controlled by others more feral and more dangerous. Throughout, she maintains the suspense triggered by a dead body in the woods, and she pries open a Pandora's box of secrets, including double lives and the hypocrisy that masks sin behind piety. This novel becomes more powerful as one reads, building to a heartstopping denouement, yet remaining strictly observant of the minutiae of daily life that give the book its honesty and pathos. 75,000 first printing; $75,000 ad/promo. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 07/31/1995 Release date: 08/01/1995 Genre: Fiction
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