Anton Furey, the granola-soaked guru-psychotherapist at the heart of two of Martha McPhee’s novels, preaches the gospel of sexual liberation as the gateway to the divine. Even his own children swallow the Kool-Aid, lauding this self-regarding impostor as more savior than father. The second of these books bears the title “Gorgeous Lies.”
McPhee’s new novel might well have been so titled. Calling her book “An Elegant Woman,” in which family lore conveys as much made-up grandeur as fact, is both fitting and ironic. For the elegant woman in question — in childhood named Thelma, then nicknamed Tommy, Katharine, then Mrs. Charles Mitchell Brown in adulthood — embodies incessant self-invention.
As a mature woman who has married well, she “dressed impeccably, in tailored suits, wore motoring gloves, netted hats, diamonds from Tiffany’s.” Over the course of a life spanning the 20th century, she transformed herself into the elegant personage she had long ago decided she must be.
McPhee’s narrator, Isadora, knows her as Granny. An aspiring writer, Isadora resolves to shape the stories Granny has passed down as grist for a novel, “An Elegant Woman,” in fact. Like grandmother, like granddaughter; she delights in fanciful possibility, the maybes, might-have-beens, and probably-nots across four generations.
In the family’s origin story, beginning before World War I, Glenna Stewart flees an unfaithful husband in Ohio for the brighter prospects of Montana. Her daughters, Thelma and younger sister Katharine, are treated like so much excess baggage. A flamboyant figure who flaunts her alleged descent from European and Scottish royalty, Glenna drops them off with surrogate parents, or leaves them utterly alone, while she seeks teaching jobs (falsely claiming an Oberlin degree) and promotes women’s suffrage across the state.
In the wake of abandonment, Thelma hones a tough-minded independence ironically modeled on her mother’s. “Sentiment was for the weak,” she observes. “The strong kept moving.” She learns to lie, drops out of school, traps coyotes (as the tomboy Tommy), and begs for money to feed her and her sister.
Yet when Katharine finishes high school, Thelma suggests a grand bargain that will forever haunt their relationship: that Thelma take Katharine’s name and diploma to allow her to enroll in a nursing school in Brooklyn. She heads east, while Katharine, now calling herself Patricia, turns toward California, her head filled with Hollywood dreams. Only Thelma, become Katharine, will succeed.
The newly christened Katharine ascends from hospital nurse, to private nurse for a wealthy family, to wife of a successful businessman. Before long, she is ensconced in a tony New Jersey suburb with a maid, a Lincoln Continental, and those diamonds. From Glenna, she has absorbed her lesson well: “If I don’t like something the way it is … I simply say it how I would like it to be,” not only about her lineage but also about her husband’s. No, Charles Brown from Lynn, Mass., is not really heir to the Buster Brown shoe fortune.
Katharine and Charles produce two children, Winter, who will become the narrator’s mother, and a son. Winter is a sometime photographer, her husband a successful novelist. Male infidelity crops up again; both Winter’s father and future husband have a tendency to wander, though both are eventually reeled back home, for better or worse.
Despite the appearance of hot-button topics like mental illness and sexual abuse in the later parts of the book, I found myself far more absorbed in those sections where Glenna and Thelma-Katharine rev up their larger-than-life aspirations. The characters in succeeding generations pale by comparison. Still, as we near the finish line in the 21st century, the parallels, intended or not, between persistent family lies and the Age of Misinformation take on an eerie relevance.
Throughout, the writing remains sharp, precise, and, yes, elegant. Here is Winter approaching a mental hospital in England: She “thought there was something prescient, or caustic, in the name: Fulbourn, like newborn or reborn. Here you’d come to be full born — like the monster or unicorn you had become.”
McPhee’s narrative swings back and forth in time, creating wide-angled panoramas followed by intimate closeups. We view, for instance, the West in its tumultuous early days of mining and white settlement. Later we focus in on sibling rivalry or Katharine’s rich patron, an erstwhile poor boy himself, sensing in her a kindred spirit, “something about her, active like a yeast or a blossom, swelling before his eyes.”
Always, the past hovers in the background. Winter, donning her wedding gown at a bridal shop, gazes at herself in the triptych of mirrors before her, her image rippling outward in endless progression, “as if all of history converged upon a single moment, which it does, she thought, listening to the swish of fabric on the floor, before she moved again — and the moment moved too — and became part of the past.”
AN ELEGANT WOMAN
By Martha McPhee
Scribner, 407 pp., $27
Dan Cryer is the author of “Forgetting My Mother: A Blues From the Heartland.”