Staff Pick: Burden of Desire
MacNeil, co-anchor of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS-TV, has always seemed an earnest, traditional sort, and that’s the kind of first novel he has written. It is also, however, warm-hearted, has a thoroughly original background and setting, and offers an offbeat romantic triangle focusing on an unusually appealing heroine. The story begins with a bang–literally, as a munitions ship blows up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917 in what will be the biggest, most destructive man-made explosion until the atomic bomb. Picking up the pieces in the well-evoked ruined city are young parson Peter Wentworth, an ambitious man in an unhappy marriage, and Stewart MacPherson, a psychiatrist just beginning to treat shell-shocked returning soldiers. The two read a diary accidentally lost in the wreckage, belonging to Julia Robertson, a young, unconventional woman whose beauty and self-acknowledged sensuality ensnares each of them in turn. Such narrative suspense as MacNeil provides involves which man she will choose after her husband dies a hero’s death at the front. But this leisurely, rather creakily plotted novel does not strive for suspense; it is a portrait of a narrow provincial society in its first stirrings of doubt regarding many previously fixed notions: patriotism, religion, cowardice, honor. As such, it brings Halifax and its anguish sensitively to life, and in Julia Robertson creates the kind of woman who will always set men dreaming.