Eudora “Dori” Bardwell, sole surviving daughter of a man who wrote what some say was the most important slavery novel since “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” loses her job and the only home she has ever known, all because her insensitive joke about black people goes viral.
The title comes from what locals in a small western Massachusetts town dubbed the imitation Southern-plantation mansion built by Dori’s late father. Bedford Bardwell, writer and alcoholic, fell out of favor with the literary crowd after his second and third novels failed to match the success of his first book, “Tea and Slavery.” While Dori, his oldest, is away at college, he flies a private airplane into the ocean, taking with him Dori’s mother and all but one of her several siblings. He leaves behind “Bardwell’s Folly” and a will stipulating that the house be maintained as a museum in his honor, as well as a home for Dori and her pothead brother, Salinger.
If coping with her father’s legacy weren’t enough of a challenge, Dori’s life becomes more complicated as conflicts with trustees of the Bardwell estate, a rekindled relationship with her high school boyfriend and a benefactor intent on obtaining her father’s unfinished manuscript are added to the mix.
“Bardwell’s Folly” is described as a love story. It could be called a comedy. The book’s author, Sandra Hutchison, is adept at interjecting romance and humor while juggling half-a-dozen subplots, most of which remain unresolved at novel’s end.
As a bonus, Hutchison draws upon her experience as an editor and teacher to deftly skewer book publishers, critics, newspapers and academia.
The author’s passion is invested less in plot than in exploring characters, especially females. Dori has been orphaned for eight years as the novel opens. In her mid- 20s, she is oddly out of touch with her generation, barely eking out an existence as a nursing home aide and part-time grocery clerk. She doesn’t own a mobile phone or a working laptop. When a politically incorrect wisecrack disrupts her fragile lifestyle, she is forced to face issues she has avoided for years, much like the relics of her broken family secreted in the attic of the decrepit mansion.
“The erosion of one’s self-confidence was a cumulative process,” the author writes, inviting the inference that restoring self-confidence takes time and effort as well. Pushing Dori along the confidence path are Joe, her ex-beau, and Maya, a sharp-tongued, black documentary-film maker, who helps Dori connect with grandparents whom she never knew existed but who hold the secret to her father’s mysterious past.
Central to Dori’s climb to self-sufficiency is reconciling the desire for independence with the need to be needed. As she sits at Joe’s bedside in a hospital burn unit, where he is recuperating from smoke inhalation (he’s a volunteer firefighter), she asks herself, “What if having nobody else was such a strong force bringing them together that it disguised other ways in which they would not be good for each other?”
Such questions can never be answered satisfactorily, of course. What may seem the right answer today may be entirely wrong the next.
The author crafts believable characters who wrestle with universal uncertainties of relationships and ambiguities of conscience. If one measure of a successful novel is its power to make readers uncomfortable while enchanting them with a compelling story, this book exceeds the mark.
With this novel, her third, the author clearly has found her own comfort zone.
Terry Plumb is a retired editor of The Herald
by Sandra Hutchison
Sheer Hubris Press
347 pages, $15.99