cover image One Sweet Quarrel

One Sweet Quarrel

Deirdre McNamer. HarperCollins Publishers, $22 (280pp) ISBN 978-0-06-016868-1

In vignettes so focused they often seem like actual memories, McNamer ( Rima in the Weeds ) creates a family saga that strikingly evokes time's passage. The reader's first impression of Amelia Malone, circa 1973, is that she's a pathetic and feeble old woman who spends hours putting on makeup. Her octogenarian brother Jerry is introduced with even less ado. Subsequent chapters detail these siblings' more vibrant years: in the 1910s, Amelia aspires to be a chanteuse in Manhattan, where failed contracts and talented competition leave her dispirited. Jerry survives droughts and winters as a homesteader in Montana, then has minor success as an oil prospector. As Amelia leaves New York to visit him, the novel draws nearer its climax--a 1923 prizefight between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons that is intended to bring prosperity to the small Montana town's economy. A flash-forward to the 50-year anniversary of the fight, and a celebration at which ``old-timers'' like Jerry and Amelia are patronizingly honored, offers a powerful commentary on how that hope was dashed. While there's certainly occasion for bitterness in Amelia and Jerry's decline, it is tempered by the seamless beauty and clarity of the narrative and the universality of the characters' struggles against encroaching infirmity. (Mar.)