A lightly fictionalized Davis, California in the early 70’s is the setting for this wonderful novel, with its colorful food coops, Photophobia “chicks” and bomb making anarchists. The story is about four scarred (and scared) people living in an old Victorian, hiding out from full participation in life, in some cases because of a quite legitimate fear. Theo and Anton, brother and sister, own the historical home. Theo is a retired ballet dancer, bossy and frightened. They have two boarders, two young women; the secretive leaving no fingerprints Lynn, distracted by lust, and the immigrant fiercely optimistic Ouida, who is determined to participate fully in America. There are mysteries from the past and dangerous secrets to be confronted.
I loved the way the fully realized characters intermeshed and the way the sentences were thoughtful and beautifully written. The satirical plotting went down easily and inevitably. One of Diane Johnson’s trademarks, (or narrative weaknesses perhaps) is the gigantic set piece to close the novel, which sometimes clanks too loudly with a farcical heavy handedness. This novel definitely contains a set piece at the end, though this time it felt more realistic, sadder. This novel ended on a note of sharp melancholy. But optimistic. Yes.
The three primary female characters are completely developed and motivated—the men, not so much. They are a little bit like one note plot points. Overall, the book is a commentary on America, and on not wasting your life because of fear.