Book Review: Mason’s Retreat

Mason’s Retreat, by Christopher Tilghman, reissued in a newly revised edition by Picador, opens with a family fleeing England in disgrace in 1936. They set sail aboard the Normandie, a luxury cruise liner headed for America, which holds their last refuge, the Mason family estate along the Chesapeake Bay. It’s not much of a refuge at first–the house has decayed with neglect–but it becomes, as the title suggests, a retreat from the vagaries of an unsteady collective life.

Edward, the father, is a failed businessman who can’t shake his desire for big things. He misdirects his thwarted ambitions towards the family farm, but his incompetence there is obvious. His wife, Edith, and their little boys, take to country life rather easily, though, enjoying the newfound rhythms.

A sense of foreboding is constantly in the background, as Edith and Simon, the eldest son, worry about when Edward will ruin their tenuous stability with another grandiose scheme destined to blow up in the family’s face. When he returns to England to see to his machinery business, which jolts back to life with demand from the impending world war, Edith and Simon feel free to live their own lives. She enters into an affair with a handsome young neighbor, and he immerses himself in farm life side by side with a black farmhand he admires. But their contentedness is short-lived when Edward discovers his wife’s betrayal.

This is a wise novel, with strong voices from the characters, exploring sacrifice and selfishness. “His decisions were simple: they were just for him,” Edith thinks of Edward. “Hers had to count for three people, and those three did not agree. She could trust no one but herself.”

Tilghman really gets into the head of young and old, male and female, black and white, with energetic writing, perfect pacing, and not a single thing missing or misplaced. He weaves a compelling yarn about the burden of legacy.

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