The careful meditative examination of unfolding relationships among people of several sorts and ages has...a dark and disturbing beauty that has some of its roots, at least, in a quiet restraint.
Well, yes, that is true. But if I tell you the story, or part of it, I will not be able to convey why it is so wonderful. However, you will want to know what its about, so here goes:
Austin King is a lawyer in a small town in Illinois. He loves his difficult, unpredictable wife and their small daughter, Abbey. As the novel begins, they are somewhat apprehensively expecting a visit from the Potter family, distant relatives from the Southern states. This apparently innocuous event will have the most enormous repercussions for both families. Nora Potter, the delightful, intelligent, idealistic daughter of the visiting family falls passionately in love with her older foster-cousin Austin, who, though he does not reciprocate, is too kind-hearted and gentle to give her sufficient discouragement. By the time the novel ends, Austin's career, his home life and even his mental health have come under threat.
Unfortunately this will not even begin to reveal what really happens in this novel. In addition to the leading players, there are many many other characters who appear, each of whom has an important, if apparently minor, part to play in the unfoldment of events. Some are old, some young -- some beautiful, some plain -- some black, some white -- some intelligent, some dull -- some kind, some unkind. But the greatness of Maxwell's writing is that he looks deep inside each one, and he looks with humanity, without judgement, indeed with what I can only call love. So the reader comes to understand, as Maxwell does, what it is that has made these people behave in the way they do, and in understanding to forgive, even if the outcome is unfortunate. Not only this, but we also see the way, in this small community (and by extension in every community), everything is connected with everything else, every event and every action produces an effect, often quite unexpected and unintended by the doer. There is also a sense here of the great sweep of time, which draws everyone along, bringing sadness to some, joy to others, and in many cases nothing but more of the same thing they have always had to endure. There is nothing resembling a happy ending -- many uncertainties remain. But I, at least, was left feeling enormously uplifted.
Here is an extract which perhaps gives you some idea of what Maxwell's writing is like:
Most maxims are lies, or at any rate misleading. A rolling stone gathers moss. A stitch in time doesn't save nine. The knowledge that you have been a fool hurts just as much, is just as hard to admit to yourself, if you are young as when you are old. Every error that people make is repeated over and over again, ad infinitum, ad nauseam, if they know what they are doing and cannot help themselves. The curtain goes up night after night on the same play, and if the audience weeps, it is because the hero always arrives at the abandoned sawmill in the nick of time, the heroine never gives in to the dictates of her heart and marries the man with the black moustache. There is not only a second chance, there are a thousand second chances to speak up, to act bravely for once, to face the fact that must sooner or later be faced. If there really is no more time, it can be faced hurriedly. Otherwise it can be examined at leisure. The result in either case is the same. Windows that have been nailed shut for years are suddenly pried open, letting air in, letting love in, and hope. Cause is revealed to be, after all, nothing but effect. And the long, slow, dreadful working out of the consequences of any given mistake is arrested the moment you accept the idea that for you (and for your beautiful bride, who with garlands is crowned, whose lightness and brightness doth shine with such splendor) there is an end.
This is a novel I am going to re-read and re-read. I hope you will read it at least once.