An old wealthy family falls apart in Anne Whitney Pierce’s latest novel

There is something Victorian about the prologue to Anne Whitney Pierce’s new novel, “Down to the River.” It is rare to find prologues in contemporary novels, and even rarer for such opening pages to expose the delightfully dense backstory of the main characters. Pierce, who spends her summers in Maine and authored two previous books, fares well in introducing her to the Potts family, setting the emotional and psychological groundwork for the dramas to come.

Remi and Nash Potts, identical twin brothers who had “grown up riding the frayed fringes of an old and dwindling fortune made by their great-grandfather in frozen foods,” enjoyed a privileged childhood marked by the presence of a drunken father who squandered the i family money before he died under mysterious circumstances that no one has looked too closely at. Like all men in their family up to that point, the twins attended Harvard where “they came across athletic ability and capable if not brilliant minds, riding the tide of sturdy genes, a shaky sense of entitlement and the old family name . “

As the novel opens, Remi and Nash are living in adjoining Cambridge houses bought with the last of their meager inheritances and run a sporting goods store together. Each, respectively, has a wife and three children. Only the youngest, Hen (short for Henry; Remi’s son) and Chickie (a nickname more suited to her temperament than her real name, Minerva; Nash), still live at the house. In 1966, when the first chapter after the prologue begins, the cousins ​​are 14 years old and are as big as thieves, having spent their childhood together, almost brothers.

However, their intimate and comfortable relationship begins to change that summer. Chickie’s mother, Violet, keeps trying to get her youngest daughter to act more like a teenager and less like the burping, dirty-sock tomboy that she still is. Remi, meanwhile, noticing how she notices Chickie’s pubescent body, tries to have a man-to-man conversation with the kindly Hen. The effect is that Hen becomes more shy and less comfortable around Chickie, walking away from her without telling her exactly why.

Hen and Chickie aren’t the only ones whose relationships are changing, though. As the novel moves forward in time to 1969 and then 1970, the Potts family slowly falls apart. Once a stay-at-home mom, Violet opens a stationery store and Remi’s wife, Faye, starts running a pottery studio. Both women yearn for a freedom they haven’t had since before their children were born, and perhaps not even then, since they married young, before they had a chance to figure out what they wanted besides a socially prescribed husband and family. Remi and Nash sink deeper into their alcoholism, becoming less functional by the day. As Nash finds solace in anti-war activism for a time, Remi’s grief-stricken rage—held close by an incident of helplessness that she never told Nash about—starts to spiral out of her control.

The unraveling of the Potts as a family moves the novel forward as much as the characters’ individual attempts at change and growth. It’s a special pleasure to watch Chickie and Hen grow up, the way their loathing of their parents slowly gives way to something more akin to understanding and the occasional pity. When Hen sees her sister’s friend frowning at how much her parents have, “she feels a surge of dull, fierce love for her mother, for the home she’s tried to create, a fury at these people who dare laugh at someone they don’t even know, someone as good as his mother might be.

The cousins ​​also begin to understand how adulthood isn’t as different as they might have thought; Chickie is about to have sex for the first time with a young leather jacketed biker named Elvis, “just a boy, with a toothless grandpa, a boy who hates his name, just like she hates hers, who he’s embarrassed to be naked in front of her, even though he’s freaked out.

Pierce’s prose is fluent in long and often tongue-in-cheek descriptions that clearly depict the temperaments, weaknesses and class and generational quirks of his characters and “Down to the River” is a beautiful novel of a family that loses and finds itself. .

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of the novel ‘All My Mother’s Lovers’.

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