From the very first chapter, with its description of a road where “the dirt rose behind me in big clouds that showed yellow against the blue sky,” Loving the Dead and Gone immerses readers deep into the world of North Carolina tobacco country in the early 1960s.
The richly described landscape is filled with an equally rich set of characters and subplots. Switching among four narrators, the novel goes back and forth in time through four generations of the family of Aurilla McMath Cutter and two other families that become intertwined with her life.
The story is launched when Clayton Bishop, who is unhappily married to Aurilla’s daughter Berta Mae, discovers a young factory worker named Donald Ray Spencer dead in a freak car accident, just as he is setting off to go fishing. Donald Ray’s 17-year-old widow, Darlene, is torn between romantic fantasies—her image of Donald Ray, and her yearning to be a normal teenager who flirts with boys and dances at her high school prom. She convinces herself that Donald Ray is actually reaching out to her through Clayton.
Aurilla, however, sees what’s really happening. In Clayton’s growing closeness with Darlene, she fears the re-enactment of some of the worst patterns in her intertwined families’ histories.
Like Darlene, many of the other characters have concocted fantasies that let them believe they’re in love—including Clayton with Berta Mae; Aurilla with her husband, Joe; and Aurilla’s sister-in-law, Louellen, with her own husband, Jay. Also like Darlene, many of them are struggling to cope with the devastating deaths of people they deeply loved, whether it’s a child, a friend, or a lover. Too often, their solution is to cut themselves off from their true feelings, to become “the husk of my own making,” as one character puts it.
This deeply felt tale of love, pain, family ties, and secrets is constantly twisting in unexpected ways.
The only problem is that it’s sometimes too rich. There are too many characters, with stories that too often follow the same trail and names that are confusingly similar: Louellen and Leonora, Berta Mae and Beulah, Joe and Jay. The unhappy marriages and illicit romances are engrossing because they are different enough in their own ways (to paraphrase Tolstoy) that they echo and enhance each other. However, the narratives of embittered mothers ignoring their daughters and daughters-in-law feel repetitious.
Still, the overall story and vividly described setting are so compelling that readers will gallop along to the ending.