'Heat Lightning' is exactly the sort of book I associate with Persephone (and then I'm constantly surprised by how varied their list is) and I'll say it now - quite an odd one to read whilst there's still traces of snow on the ground (although thankfully it's starting to warm up) because oppressive heat is inescapable in the novel.
Amy Norton is visiting her parents somewhere in the mid west, she's recuperating from an operation and also running away from something uncomfortable in her marriage. Back at home in the stifling heat of that mid western summer Amy is able to observe her family with some of the impartiality of an outsider and hopes that this will give her some clarity to help deal with her own problems. It's also 1930 - the drought stricken summer that followed the stock market crash of 1929 - still the beginning of the depression and all sorts of storms are about to break over the Westover family.
Patricia McClelland Miller raises a couple of points in her introduction which I found particularly interesting. The first is about the American search for a national identity in the face of a lack of common tradition. This is something that was a major theme in American art (or perhaps more properly in the arts) at the time, the Westover family has acquired first and second generation immigrants amongst it's daughter in laws who bring their own cultural values and expectations with them. One of the problems Amy is grappling with is her attempt to work out her own set of values to live by in a constantly shifting society. The second point, and it's worth some consideration, is about the changing fortunes of domestic and 'feminine' fiction. McClelland says that ' When Helen Hull's earlier novels were described as 'women's books', reviewers meant that they were written on controversial topics from a woman's point of view.' By the 1930's though it became a somewhat more pejorative term, it still is, but really - why should it be?
When Amy returns home it's to find the family suffering from the heat and all a little bit on edge. Things aren't going well in her father's business, nor are they looking good for her uncle. Cousin Tom may be having an affair with the maid, and Grandmother Westover promptly reveals that the increasingly erratic man she has to do the garden is in fact her husbands illegitimate son - his learning difficulties persuaded her that something had to be done for him and she's not the woman to renege on her responsibilities.
As the heat shows no sign of breaking the tension increases, the cracks in Amy's marriage show, the financial implications of the depression get closer to home for Dewitt Westover who's about to show just what a man will do for money and then something happens which utterly alters the family dynamic. There's a lot going on in this book, Hull uses this extended family to work through all sorts of ideas - and the genius of it is that everybody has a domestic setting of some sort, whereas our individual experiences of the world outside of the home isn't always easy to translate into the experience of others, what happens within the home is far easier to empathise with.
It's not the biggest spoiler to reveal that Amy's husband has been unfaithful , and as the book I'm struggling to finish at the moment is also about what I'm coming to think of as good old fashioned adultery, it's interested me to see the differences. In this case the marriage has hit a rough patch where both Amy and Geoffrey are out of sympathy with each other. When Amy catches him out she's not in a position to immediately have it out with him, but when they do they do at least manage to be honest with each other. The implication is that they might be able to repair things but that it won't be easy. As examples Amy has, amongst others, her grandmother who was able to accommodate her husbands indiscretions within their marriage somehow, her mother who has made her father her life, and an aunt who's marriage failed after a series of infidelities. Examining all those relationships allows her - and the reader - to consider what she wants from her own husband and what she's prepared to give.
It's a rewarding book as well as a really enjoyable one, it's also a book to go back to and one that I whole heartedly recommend.