Alther adeptly charts the fluctuating identities of her characters through the feminist changes in society of the '60s and '70s, and though she does it with a light hand, she explores their real angst.
The heroine, Ginny Babcock, is sad and confused when she returns to Hullsport, Tennessee, ostensibly to visit her mother in the hospital. In reality she has left her husband and child and doesn't know what to do next or where she will live.
Alther delineates the rocky relationship of Ginny with her mother. Mrs. Babcock has a clotting disorder, is resisting taking her medication, and screams at Ginny. Why isn't Ginny dying instead of Mrs. Babcock? Ginny has always done the wrong thing and Mrs. Babcock always did what she was expected to do.
This outburst is realistic and at the same time startling because the mother-daughter relationship is so often sentimentalized in popular fiction. When Ginny tells her mother about trying to save baby birds that fell through the chimney at the cottage, and the parent birds' subsequent refusal to feed them after she puts them in a tree, she and her mother make peace. Mrs. Babcock says, "Things like that used to kill me when you children were little. I'd put them up in the trees, and the cats would get them, and you could never understand why nature was set up that way. And of course I never knew what to tell you because I don't understand either."
Alther's writing is straightforward but effective. The incidents are just offbeat enough to make you feel that the story is unique, while at the same time feeling a flash of recognition.
For instance, after a motorcycle accident, when Ginny's father forces her to apply to women's colleges, she tries to discourage Worthley College from accepting her.
"In a last-ditch effort of defiance, I wore a black, too-tight straight skirt; a black cardigan buttoned up the back with a Do-It Pruitt pointed bra underneath; Clem's red dragon windbreaker, the tatters of which I had carefully stitched together upon finding them among Mother's cleaning cloths; black ballet slippers; and Clem's huge clanking identification bracelet."
Doesn't that sound like all of us? Heavens, would we have considered a WOMEN'S college? Thank God, in the midwest, no.