cover image The Undertow

The Undertow

Jo Baker. Knopf, $25.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-307-95709-2

Baker’s saga about four generations of the British Hastings family, beginning with a young William sailing off to WWI, explores the effects of war, poverty, dreams, and the difficulties of love. The story’s tone is set in the seedy Maltese bar where William breaks his wedding vows, dying shortly thereafter in a torpedo attack. Years later, William’s navy buddy Sully shows up to deliver William’s final postcard to his wife and ingratiate himself to her, though his schemes are frustrated by her son, Billy, who eventually marries and fights in WWII. Though he survives, Billy struggles to cope with his son Will’s congenital disability, and the resulting emotional distance leaves both men embittered. Will overcomes his handicap to become a college professor, but is restless in his relationships. The closeness he wishes for with his artistic daughter, Billie, she instead shares with her grandfather. Will and his daughter eventually find common ground through her art after his son from a second wife enlists in the war in Afghanistan. At times the story’s scope threatens to exceed the author’s grasp, but Baker deftly reins it in for the emotionally charged final third. Agent: Anna Stein, Aitken Alexander Associates. (May)