Dew's 'Evidence Against Her': familial agonies

September 23, 2001|By Tess Lewis | By Tess Lewis,Special to the Sun

The Evidence Against Her, by Robb Forman Dew. Little Brown. 327 pages. $24.95.

Those happy families, purportedly all alike, are simply very skilled at masking or repressing the unhappiness that lurks beneath the placid surface they present to the outside world. Robb Forman Dew, whose saga of small-town familial angst, Dale Loves Sophie to Death, won the 1995 National Book Award, illustrates the fragility and unacknowledged cost of one family's happiness in her new novel, The Evidence Against Her.

In the small Ohio town of Washburn in the early 1900s, Agnes Claytor, the eldest daughter of a spectacularly unhappy family, struggles against the odds to achieve a happy family of her own. Her distracted, manic-depressive mother, Catherine, had been the belle of Natchez, Miss., before marrying the handsome but abusive, workaholic Midwestern politician, John Claytor.

Catherine never adapted to her loss of status or to Washburn's limited society, and vented her immense frustration and rage on her children. Her alternating bouts of suffocating intimacy and denigrating criticism left her children emotionally gun-shy, but masters at concealing any inner turmoil.

As soon as Agnes finishes high school, she escapes into the arms of Warren Scofield, a son of Washburn's leading family. Warren, 11 years older than Agnes, has also survived a difficult childhood. His mother never fully recovered from the loss of two infants and suffered, silently, from her husband's alcoholism and philandering.

The Scofield family proves a rather perilous refuge. Agnes finds she must navigate her father-in-law's lecherous advances on her own. When she is involved in his accidental death, the family's very insistence on her innocence seems to implicate her. The novel itself becomes the evidence for and against the legitimacy of Agnes' hard-won happiness.

Dew is adept at charting the unspoken messages and tensions in even the most demonstrative of families. A sidelong glance, an apparently casual remark, affection given too soon, too late, or withheld altogether, can become the material of high drama, particularly among in-laws where a new language and a new set of rules must be learned without guidance. Unfortunately, the characters are not always as compelling as the author would have them and the novel has moments of longueur as when one must listen to a too-fond grandparent detail minute comparisons and contrasts of his progeny.

At the close of the novel, Dew dotes on Agnes' contented family and the "serene elation [that] was a constant in her life during her children's younger years." Dew catalogues in great detail the melodrama of childhood squabbles, rivalries, and reconciliations and the joy of discoveries and projects. And yet, Dew also sounds an ominous note that paves the way to a sequel. "[Agnes] remained dedicated to the schedule of her days, mustering her forces against any ambush of chaos. It never crossed her mind to consider the possible untrustworthiness of the love of her own children."

What, we can only wonder, will this woman, who has escaped her past and built an idyll through sheer strength of will, do when her children are old enough to resist her control and assert wills of their own?

And Agnes's children? They will be prime candidates for the support group once proposed by Garrison Keillor: Adult Children of Parents.

Tess Lewis has published translations from French and German and writes essays for the Hudson Review and the New Criterion. She has a master's degree in English literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.

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