So who is “everyone else”? There are 10 Booth siblings in total, four of whom die young. Father is a famous actor, a drunk and a bully. Mother is a tragic blur. Three of the brothers, including John, went into the family business of acting. One of the sisters grows up to settle uneasily into spinsterhood; the other into marriage and motherhood, also uneasily. For hundreds of pages we follow the Booths as they rove from city to city, flourishing or failing, as people do.
There is nothing wrong with chronicling what people do and how they feel about it, of course. This is the terrain of novels. The problem is how Fowler goes about it, which is in prose that is alternately sleepy and mawkish. Here is a character pondering the alarming fate of his two missing children: “Change is hard.” Here is one of the Booth sisters, considering her impending marriage de ella: “It’s time, she thinks. Time to grow up.” Here is that same sister, reflecting on her loneliness: “She’s long understood that no one will ever love her as much as she needs to be loved.”
More distracting than the emotional banalities are the verbal clichés: the hairs that “stand on end,” the chances that go “up in smoke,” the rugs that are beaten “within an inch of their lives.” Hands shake like leaves and pillows are drowned in tears. Sparksfly. Heart’s race. All of this would be bad writing from a high school student. Coming from an author of Fowler’s achievements — she was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and received a PEN/Faulkner Award the same year — it feels more like malpractice.
More staleness: In one scene, a Booth sister sits on the branch of a cherry tree, picking ripe fruit, when a snake suddenly twists down the trunk with tongue protruding. We grasp the creaky metaphor before it appears on the page: “Even in the old familiar places, in places you know and love, in your very home, peril is hidden like a serpent in the leaves.”
Transitions are often information dumps. (“Now it’s 1846, another March coming round.” “1851 is a busy year for the Booth family.” “In 1856, when Edwin returns from California, Rosalie is 33 years old.”) There is a wearying proliferation of follicular description : One person has “a muddle of curls,” another “a messy head of curls,” a third “an abundance of curly hair,” and a fourth “fetching curls.”