Farrar. Oct. 2023. 336p. ISBN 9780374610487. $28. F
Returning to fiction after What About the Baby??, McDermott focuses on characterization. Young newlywed Patricia and little Rainey meet in Saigon in 1963 at a garden party hosted by Rainey’s mother, Charlene. It is Patricia’s introduction to the world of American high-society wives. With the assistance of some U.S. military personnel, Charlene draws Patricia into her black-market activities involving a Vietnamese children’s hospital and a leprosarium. Charlene’s imperious treatment of the Vietnamese women in her employ further strains the women’s relationship. Sixty years later, Rainey tracks down Patricia to ask her for the full story of Charlene’s secretive influence over whomever she met. Charlene was the catalyst both for Patricia’s metamorphosis from a naive dewy-eyed “helpmeet” to tougher pragmatic independent woman and for Rainey’s transition from a troubled adolescent to a happily married wife and mother.
VERDICT National Book Award winner McDermott frames this exquisite novel (a recent Barnes & Noble book club pick) against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Social class, awakening feminist consciousness, the bladed side of “good works,” and the power of one seemingly small event that changes lives forever are perfectly revealed in this correspondence between two women, connected over six decades by their shared experience.
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