The problem with life, as a story, is how mundane it tends to be, each individual experiencing great drama and exquisite emotion in the moments that most others -- most readers -- might find rather matter-of-fact, everyday. It is Mary François Rockcastle's remarkable accomplishment to find in those everyday occurrences a story of great moment -- the sort of drama that defines and marks most of our lives, however "average."
Make no mistake: Rockcastle's characters are distinguished in their own way. Carl is a celebrated architect; his wife, Hallie, is a respected poet. But as their story is told, alternating between their perspectives, what matters is the very familiar trouble they encounter: their betrayal or abandonment by their parents; their unhappiness in their marriage, with Hallie looking elsewhere for comfort; their fraught relationship with their twin daughters, Cordelia and Beatrice (a very literary couple they are).
The story, such as it is, centers on Carl's late-in-life discovery of Hallie's earlier emotional infidelity, just as the two of them are confronting his mortality, as his inevitably fatal neurodegenerative disease begins to manifest itself and is finally diagnosed.
Back and forth the thoughts and reminiscences of these two characters go, with their stories and memories framed by their time, past and present, in their cabin in Caddis Wood, a summer place in Wisconsin. Through each, we learn of the accident that shaped one daughter's life, and of the fire that claimed the other girl's husband.
The author, who lives in Minneapolis and is dean of the Graduate School of Liberal Studies at Hamline University, is very good at telling Hallie's and Carl's story. She conveys, all at once, their very different experience and understanding of events and the influence of nature, ever-present in both the setting and the telling, on what happens and how the two of them make sense of it.
Carl's final project, a river research center on a particularly ravaged stretch of the Mississippi, unfolds as his health deteriorates -- and as it becomes apparent that his own earlier attempts to tame the land of Caddis Wood, attempts in which toxic pesticides and herbicides figured, may have contributed to his demise. Meanwhile, Hallie's latest work, an extended poetic meditation on the myth of Demeter and Persephone, is nearing publication (and finding approbation). And all along, we learn of the history of Carl's and Hallie's relationship, the families they came from and the family they made, and the natural world that affected and reflected those lives -- human nature and nature in the broader sense joined in a delicately rendered and moving pattern.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Cornucopia, Wis.