It is perhaps a Freudian slip that when I typed the title of the book to begin this review, I mistakenly typed it as The Waspshot Chronicle. Maybe I’m being too harsh on what is at the end of the day a rich and interesting book, which as the title says chronicles the lives of a well-to-do family in mid-20th century rural New England. While the characters themselves are something less than likeable (likewise the setting, belying the Norman Rockwell stereotype I hold of the place), Cheever’s writing is masterfully wrought and thoroughly engaging.
The first hundred or so pages are fairly prosaic as the author uses plenty of evocative but not overdone imagery and apt metaphor to place the setting and the characters in the reader’s mind. Cheever’s dialogue is most often indirect, but when he uses direct quotes they are in dialect that feels spot on and unobtrusive. We meet the oddball family and become involved in the gradually thickening plot.
In part two Cheever turns suddenly to more experimental techniques, such as writing in the second person or delivering whole chapters’ worth of excerpts of the main character Leander’s “autobiography or confession,” written in a difficult-to-read staccato shorthand. With the more challenging writing the plot also becomes more involved, and during this part of the book we’re made to follow three or four separate plot lines as Leander’s sons Moses and Coverly leave home to succeed in the world and Leander himself writes his book and contends with his wealthy and mildly hateful cousin Honora (the characters’ names are for the most part more interesting than they are themselves).
Nearly every character comes across in a bad light, seen through the lens of a twisted sexual politics — young men are lecherous rapists, young women are whores, old men are henpecked and emasculated by the bitter old women in their lives, who are all caricatures of Miss Havisham — though there are one or two exceptions, principally among the youth, who seem to retain some optimism and essential goodness (or at least some complexity).
I would recommend this book for the beauty of Cheever’s writing alone, though despite my early wariness in the setting and characters it was on the whole enjoyable. As is expected with Heavy Family Dramas there is some tragedy, but there are also some funny scenes, as when a country bumpkin in the big city sputteringly tries his first martini cocktail, or when a young man and his future bride attempt early consummation under the nose of her Havishammy guardian. Cheever does a fantastic job of exploring the transitory nature of life (the only constant is change) and rendering everything believable without allowing it to become too dry or too silly (both of which characteristics do feature at times). And it has that rarity among fiction in any genre: a satisfying ending.