• U.S.

Books: A Surfeit of Love

2 minute read

BLACK SUMMER (312 pp.)—Nancy Hale—Little, Brown ($4.95).

Novelist Nancy Hale specializes in exposes of the American family. In her finely chiseled novels and short stories, she has shown an unfailing eye for the intricacies of the ordinary household, the small gestures that lead to major disasters. Her latest novel is a delicately Freudian one about a family living in a swank small town north of New York.

Dora Harmsworth is frigid, while her husband Malcolm is a great prig. To make up for the lack of physical love, the pair chatter incessantly about love in the abstract.

Into this edgy household comes the perfect scapegoat: an unruly seven-year-old boy from the South named Robert Kean. The son of Dora’s sister, Robert has been foisted on the Harmsworths while his mother recovers from her latest illness.

He senses that he is not wanted and takes refuge in surliness—an affront to the Harmsworths’ philosophy of uplift. “I never think of death!” declares Dora. “I am a life-lover if there ever was one!”

The couple nag the boy to smile and lecture him about love. Dora calls him “chickabiddy,” a name that every little boy has an inalienable right not to be called. Malcolm prays for his “dark, misdirected little mind” in church. When Robert fails to come around, the couple comfortably conclude that he is ruining their marriage.

But the family explosion comes from an unexpected quarter. In contrast to Robert, the Harmsworths’ own little girl of 10, Julie, is all sweetness and instant obedience. But even Julie proves to have an ego. Bored with drab suburbia, she asks to go to New York. Malcolm considers the city vaguely, sexually menacing, and refuses. In exasperation. Julie strips off her clothes in front of a visiting clergyman, shattering her parents’ illusion of a pure, desexualized love.

When Robert’s parents learn of this bit of exhibitionism, he is whisked back home. When his pals down South start stuffing a hungry cat with food to watch it vomit, Robert beats them up. He knows what it is to be killed with kindness.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com