Issue: May 15, 2020
*An Elegant Woman
By Martha McPhee
June 2020. 416p. Scribner, $27 (9781501179570)
A richly animated work, McPhee’s enthralling new novel glides through American history, from early-twentieth-century Billings, Montana, to a Prohibition-era Adirondacks lakeside retreat and beyond, alongside fabulous characters. Sorting through the family home in present-day New Jersey, Isadora, a novelist, tells her late Grammy’s story as she would have wished, mingling realistic happenings with embellished ancestral lore. As a stocky child standing with her pretty younger sister, Katherine, on an Ohio train platform in 1910, awaiting their long journey to Montana with their mother, Thelma “Tommy” Stewart seems unlikely to develop into an elegant East Coast matriarch, but circumstances drive her to become a mistress of self-invention. This quality she picks up from her mother, the fascinating Glenna (“cultivation and wilderness combined in her”), who takes charge of her own life, even depositing her daughters with kindly neighbors while away teaching in a tiny Western town. Later, Tommy raises Katherine alone; while her sister attends school, Tommy earns money by begging and selling coyote pelts. Both make choices that shift their paths in surprising ways. The frequent mentions of hereditary artifacts feel overdone at times. Overall, however, McPhee elevates the generational saga into a dazzling, artfully detailed presentation of self-determination, women’s responsibilities and freedoms, and how people craft family legacies.
— Sarah Johnson
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