cover image Dwelling Places

Dwelling Places

Vinita Hampton Wright, . . Harper San Francisco, $23.95 (342pp) ISBN 978-0-06-079080-6

In this extraordinarily well-observed, contemplative novel, Wright focuses on a present-day Iowa family reeling from one tragedy after another. Its matriarch, Rita Mae Barnes, copes with the loss of her husband, son and farm by taking care of everyone around her. Her surviving son, Mack, struggles with depression serious enough to warrant a stay in a psychiatric hospital, while his desperately tired wife, Jodie, attempts to raise their children and support the family in his absence. It's not an easy task: their 14-year-old daughter, Kenzie, becomes enamored of a Christian cult and a mentally ill 35-year-old man, and their 17-year-old son, Young Taylor, slouches around town in full goth attire, baiting local law enforcement and loitering at the cemetery. Despite the bleakness of these circumstances, Wright manages an astounding level of honesty and plenty of wry humor without falling into the nihilism that pervades A Thousand Acres , Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel to which this story bears an intriguing resemblance. And unlike the bulk of Christian fiction, in which characters travel predictable paths to wholesome happy endings, this novel eschews hackneyed pietism in favor of an authentic portrait of people who do not completely regret their mistakes and are still learning how to accept God's consolation. (Feb.)