The events of this novel unfold over the course of an evening in 1991, as the Cohen clan of Brookline, MA, hosts a rehearsal dinner with the Barlows, whose daughter Eliza is marrying their son Adam.
The outdoor table is set for 25, which will include a rogue child who wanders over from next door. Before the evening is through, alliances will be formed, vows broken, and secrets shared.
Literary critic Celia Cohen and her absent-minded, brilliant husband, Pindar, wonder what on earth they have in common with the Barlows, a family of lawyers.
The Cohen children are nonconformists: Adam, the bridegroom, is a poet teaching at Wellesley; Sara, who studies scorpions, has begun an affair with a Jesuit priest; and Naomi, home from a harrowing trip as a relief worker, hides in her room until the last minute.
Eliza Barlow, the bride, is in tears before the rehearsal dinner has even begun. Three of her four brothers are on the verge of divorce, and only her twin, Harry, is able to calm her down.
Each family secretly feels sorry for the other. The Cohens fear the Barlows will be judgmental. The Barlows do find the Cohens to be “academic” and “physically strange,” “missing out on the vastness and clarity of the real.”
Illustrating the point, Adam’s father, Pindar, a scholar of ancient recipes, wants only to get back to his intellectual musings. As his wife bustles about making ready, he can only ask plaintively, “They won’t stay terribly late, will they?”
The characters embody a certain kind of old-money world, one in which eccentricities abound, reminding one of Nancy Clark’s “The Hills at Home” or a New Yorker short story.
What keeps “The Garden Party” engaging is its pitch-perfect voices.
Grace Dane Mazur juggles the humorous and profound around this dinner table (about twice the size of the Last Supper), where dozens of conversations, connections, and conspiracies seem to be going on at once.
Meanwhile, the bride and bridegroom roam about the property, looking to escape the craziness. We leave it for the reader to discover what they’re really up to.
“The Garden Party” strikes a few false notes — occasionally the prose is too self-consciously purple — but there is so much richness here you will want to stick around until the last course.
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