Lookaway, lookaway

Wilton Barnhardt's Lookaway, Lookaway is a marvelous novel, following one family over the course of a decade as scandals unfold, financial fortunes rise and fall, and secrets (old and new) are revealed.

The Johnstons are one of the most respected families in Charlotte. Duke's a former city councilman; his wife, Jerene, manages the family art collection for the city's museum. Jerene's brother, Gaston, writes a popular series of Civil War romances (though the critics wish he'd kept writing the more respectable, if less commercial, literary fiction with which he began his career).

We also meet Jerene's reclusive, perpetually sickly sister, Dillard; her bitter mother, who's been dumped in the finest retirement home money can buy; and the four adult Johnston children (plus spouses/companions). It's a large cast of characters, and they each get their own point-of-view chapter; Barnhardt gives each a well-defined, distinct personality and outlook on the world.

It's unmistakably a Southern novel. One subplot is centered on the historic preservation of the site of a very, very, very minor Civil War battle (the "Skirmish at the Trestle"); and the current and historical state of race relations are never far from the surface of any conversation.

Barnhardt's female characters make a particularly strong impression -- grandmother Jeanette, abusing her doctors and caretakers, clinging to her anger and guilt about how life has turned out; the pastor's wife, Kate, struggling to balance her faith with her husband's need to succeed at church politics; the wounded and reclusive Dillard, who never quite managed to rejoin the world after the death of her only child; self- appointed rebel Annie, cheerfully provoking her father and uncle at family meals with contrarian arguments about the Civil War.

And then there's Jerene, Barnhardt's most spectacular and impressive creation. She's a formidable Southern matron who moves through society with absolute ease, disposing of rivals and enemies with such poise and grace that they barely know they've been attacked until the fight's been lost.

Like a lot of families, the Johnstons put on a very good front. You'd never know from the outside just how much tension there is at those family dinners, or how many times the family has been nearly shattered by arguments over sex or love or money. But you'd also never know how much warmth, humor, and kindness they're capable of, or how much they genuinely care for one another.

Lookaway, Lookaway is a grandly comic novel that turns out to be far more moving in the end than you might have expected.