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A death in the family, in the aftermath of war

The Truth of the Matter
By Robb Forman Dew
Little, Brown, 327 pp., $24.95

An ambitious and talented writer, Robb Forman Dew won the National Book Award for her delicious first novel, ''Dale Loves Sophie to Death," and has written other novels as well as a moving memoir of her son's coming out, ''The Family Heart."

In 2001 she published ''The Evidence Against Her," the first novel in a trilogy about the Scofield, Butler, and Claytor clans of Washburn, Ohio, which begins with the births of three children on a fine September day in 1888: Lily Scofield, her cousin Warren Scofield, and the son of a neighbor, Robert Butler. Written with verve and a fine sense of authority, it draws us into the turn-of-the-century world of middle America, which has recovered from the Civil War and has yet to face the devastation of the First World War and the influenza pandemic.

Dew shows us the complicated bonds of friendship and love that bind these families, but when Robert and Lily marry in 1913, everyone is shocked, especially when Warren, who clearly loves Lily, accompanies the young marrieds for part of their honeymoon.

Enter Agnes Claytor, the spunky daughter of a self-absorbed Southern belle, Catherine, and a dull businessman, Dwight, and her dark-eyed, dark-haired voluptuousness is a striking contrast to Lily's blond slenderness. Agnes has always unnerved her mother, who wanted a more delicate and refined daughter, and Catherine is as taken aback as the rest of Washburn when Agnes and Warren fall in love and marry. As Agnes enters this tight family circle as the outsider, she is also suffering the embarrassment of seeing her mother pregnant at 40.

But it is 1918. Within months Catherine and her youngest son, Edson, die of influenza; Agnes's teenage brothers go to live with their father in Columbus; and Agnes is left with Dwight, her youngest brother, who becomes almost a twin to her, and Warren's child, Claytor, born a few months later. (A family tree would have been useful in both books). Still, Agnes is resilient, and ''found herself living a life that absolutely amazed her. . . . At the age of twenty-four she was in charge of a bustling household in which she had achieved a ferocious domestic order."

It is Warren, though, who is most interesting, and the passages in which Dew describes his passionate love of the family engine-manufacturing business, Scofields & Co., are absolutely wonderful. Of the four main characters, Warren is the most rounded, subject to fits of depression, yet highly intelligent and complex. That is why I found myself bewildered when, at the beginning of ''The Truth of the Matter," Warren and his uncle Leo are killed in a puzzling auto accident. It is 1930, Warren has made some bad business decisions, and his death leaves Agnes and her four children overwhelmed. Pressed for money, exhausted from her teaching job, and not really able to be present for Dwight and Claytor and Betts and Howard, Agnes has lost her footing.

As the daughter of a mother who was a fierce advocate for her daughters, and as the mother of children for whom I feel that same intense, unshakable love, I was sometimes confounded by Agnes, who seems to have also lost the instinct to protect one's young. However, that may be Dew's point; there are certainly mothers like Catherine and Agnes. Thus, I found myself regarding her somewhat warily, especially when she drifts into a physically passionate but emotionally lackadaisical affair with an old boyfriend, Will Dameron, and listens to her children's problems with hardly more than half an ear.

For the first half of the book the author seems as tired as Agnes. The writing is sometimes sloppy, there are far too many exclamation marks (as many as seven or eight on a page), and we weary of people talking in a near-shout to each other. Moreover, the situation invites comparisons to that exquisite American masterpiece, James Agee's ''A Death in the Family," and Dew takes a rather limp second.

That is why it is best to start with ''The Evidence Against Her." And the good news is that about halfway through ''The Truth of the Matter" Agnes comes alive and so does the book. After a pivotal scene that begins rather preposterously and that I will not give away (but that Dew somehow makes more and more convincing), Agnes realizes that her ''notion of where she fit in the world swung around full circle . . . the new status of her own life clarified itself: She was the custodian of her children's frame of reference; she was the keeper of the house; she alone was the authority on the nature of her children's childhood. The idea her children had of who they were was partly in her hands. . . . What on earth was she doing, then, in light of her matriarchy, carrying on with Will Dameron?"

After that the novel sails along, moving mostly seamlessly from one point of view to another. The writing becomes more precise, the flashbacks about Warren give the book more weight, and the insights about parents and children are as wise as the story of Betts's courtship and marriage is surprising. One of the best strokes is the introduction of the sympathetic Sam Holloway, who was with Dwight in the Army in England and who serves as a sounding board for Agnes at the end. Though Agnes is now 50, her life seems to be opening up again.

At their best these novels are exactly the kind of old-fashioned, multifaceted narrative for which readers often yearn, and if Dew can sustain the momentum she builds in the second half of ''The Truth of the Matter" as she completes the story of Agnes and her children and grandchildren, we will be lucky, indeed.

Roberta Silman is the author, most recently, of ''Beginning the World Again." She can be reached at rsilman@verizon.net.

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