This is one of those books that is very difficult to write about. It tells a story in which ‘nothing’ really happens, and yet, as we all know, it is the nothings of life that take on the most meaning, though they will leave no trace once we are gone. Time, as the title says, will darken all that was once light. It will cover our tracks, it will dull our experiences, it will blacken and tarnish our memories until everything that once was so vibrant and real and important becomes obscured in the mists of the never ceasing march of days and months and years that eventually swallow all of our lives. As such, summarising what happens to the cast of this novel during the long, innocent days of a summer before World War One is a struggle, because everything that does happen is largely insignificant and unrecordable, yet loaded with an emotional power that will go on to change all of their lives.
During the long, hot summer of 1912, the Kings host their ‘cousins’ the Potters for an extended visit. They have never met before; Mr Potter is the son of the man who loosely adopted Austin King’s now dead father, and Austin, always a man determined to do the right thing by everybody, cannot refuse when the Potters write to suggest a family gathering. Mr and Mrs Potter arrive from Mississippi with their teenage children, Randolph and Nora, and enough luggage to last them for several weeks. Martha, Austin’s beautiful, capricious and deeply unhappy wife, is a reluctant hostess; newly pregnant, having guests is the last thing she wants, and she resents Austin for imposing his relations upon her. However, the gregarious Potters soon endear themselves to everyone in the Kings’ small Illinois town, bringing a touch of Southern glamour to the familiar routines of the dusty summer. They preen and flatter, and hint at a lifestyle of exotic ease that the staid Northern women cannot even imagine. They are like something from a fairytale.
However, the Potters are not all they seem, and soon the repercussions of their visit will begin to have devastating consequences. Austin, caught up in being the man his famous father was, is unable to respond to the emotional demands of his wife, as well as the naive, impulsive, searching Nora, who sees in Austin the answer to all of her prayers. He also can’t put a stop to Mr Potter’s attempts to embroil the men of Drapersville into a get rich quick scheme, agreeing to take legal responsibility for it. The visit from his cousins manages to reveal all of the fault lines in Austin King’s seemingly perfect life. Both his marriage to a woman who he fails to see doesn’t love him and his ailing law firm that he runs along the same lines as his father because he is too afraid to step out from his shadow begin to buckle under the weight of the Potters’ presence. By the time the Potters leave at the end of the summer, nothing will be the same, but little does Austin know that the true repercussions of their visit are just beginning.
There is so much complexity to this novel, so many fascinating characters through whom Maxwell explores a multitude of facets of life and humanity and the humdrum society of small town America at the turn of the century. There are hormonal teenagers, desperately miserable spinsters, controlling mothers, unhappy wives, philandering young husbands and forgotten old men, all whiling away their lives in stuffy drawing rooms and starlit porches, waiting for something miraculous to happen. There is so much yearning, so much pain, so much regret in these pages; a deep sadness for a generation of people without the freedom or bravery to break away from the expectations placed upon them by their society. When I closed the pages, I was struck dumb for a while, thinking about what would go on to happen to these people who seemed so desperately throbbing with life. I’m still wondering now, thanks to the perfect, deliberately inconclusive ending. There are no easy answers, no neatly tied up endings. Such is life. This is probably one of the best books I’ve ever read; beautiful, maddening and thought provoking, I know I’ll go back to it again and again. If you’ve never tried any William Maxwell, you really are missing out.