At first glance, the Blairs are the model family – something out of the old Donna Reed show, with the pediatrician father, the repressed mother, and four children – three boys and a girl. Of course, they are not ideal – no family is – and Packer allows the reader to live among their yearnings and disappointments, learning how families survive, and offering a little wisdom about relationships.
After Penny Greenway marries Bill Blair, who has dreams of a family-filled house on the wooded California acres he bought on a whim after returning from the war, she chafes at her role as wife, housekeeper, and mother. Looking forward to the day when her three children will finally all be in school, she is sidelined by a fourth unwanted pregnancy – another obstacle to her free time and her development as a budding artist. The story flips between her life with her young children and the grown adult children they’ve become, with each telling the story through alternating chapters. When the black sheep, the youngest, returns to force the sale of the big house, the plot turns inward to adult feelings of inadequacy and betrayal.
Throughout the story, James, the youngest among his three R siblings – Robert, Rebecca, and Ryan – forces the action. As a young child, James is unmanageable, lively, and unpredictable, demonstrating bizarre behavior, possibly in an attempt to get attention from a mother who would rather not give it to him. As the others grow into doctors and a teacher, James drops out, wanders the world, and finally finds himself in a commune in Oregon. Needing money to start a life with his new love, a married mother of two, James returns home to test the conditions of the trust his father had established before he died. The sale of the big house is contingent on the approval of Penny, now an artist living in New Mexico, and at least one of the children. Up until now, the children have been united against their mother and rallied against the sale.
The “crusade” refers to the young children’s plan to make their mother happy. What could they do as a family that would interest their mother? How could they rein her into their circle? Make her want to be with them? An impossibility – Penny is overwhelmed with the drudge of her life, and only wants to escape to her shed to create art.
Packer is careful to create shadings as she describes Penny’s life in the fifties. Penny hungers for recognition as more than the stay-at-home mother, hostess, wife of a Doctor. Some sacrifices were just too hard for her to make, yet, in a moment of clarity toward the end of the book, Packer has James state the obvious – “Wasn’t the whole thing mutual?” Could Bill and Penny have figured out a way to give each other what they needed as individuals? Their children do figure it out, as they move on away from the past and into their own futures.