Proper Bostonians, whose habitat was the Boston of banned books and baked beans, of Cabots, Lodges, and codfish, the citadel of blue-blooded gentility, are an extinct species. In her first novel, Monkeys (1986), Susan Minot wrote implicitly about their extinction while depicting a large and flummoxed Boston family in the 1960s. In her second novel, Folly, she employs her spare prose to describe proper Boston on its last legs, to tell the story of Lilian Eliot, an upper-class woman who comes of age during World War I.
The author, who appears in a large dust-jacket photo wearing an unbuttoned denim shirt that she seems about to strip off, is presumably able to defend herself against any accusation of primness and propriety. But she has cultivated a good deal of sympathy for her prim and proper characters. Minot knows that their contemporary counterparts, though they have the benefits of easy divorce, psychotherapy, sedation, and denim shirts, are just about as unhappy and a lot less dignified.
Nothing much happens to Lilian, and when it does, nothing much is said about it in her frosty, laconic, uncomplaining world. Equipped with mild irony, but naive and virginal, she’s 18 when she meets a uniformed young man named Walter Vail a few days before he is shipped off to the war in Europe. After a snowy walk in the Common and a few frost-melting kisses, she’s in love, hoarding sparse memories and his vague promise to return to her after the war. He doesn’t. Over the years there are rumors suggesting that she isn’t the only woman he has disappointed. Lilian finally marries a morbidly sensitive but conventional man named Gilbert Finch, who, after three children are born, sinks into work, drink, and morose silences. In the late ’30s, Walter returns to fill the void — or to pose the question of whether an elusive, phantomlike man can fill voids or only create them.
What Minot’s simple style lacks in density and irony, it sometimes makes up for in the isolated significant detail. Minot captures Lilian’s stern father through his table manners and the decline of her brother, from literary ambition to sponging, with a few brisk strokes. On the other hand, the simplicity can be bland or, when heated up, can curdle into women’s magazine potboiling: ”Looking into his eyes, she believed in treasure. She could have gazed forever, still young enough to think of forever as a possible length of time.” Readers of older Old Boston novels, such as those by George Santayana or J. P. Marquand, may find the book undernourishing, as if they had ordered a plate of Boston baked beans from Minot and been served only a thimbleful. B