Oates’s latest novel takes place in the same town (Mt Ephraim, New York) as her best-selling We Were the Mulvaneys, and it opens with a Technicolor shot of that suburban idyll. It is Mother’s Day. Quickly, the comedy of American crassness and banality begins: men who talk about their jobs like infomercials and women who do ‘crafts’. The narrator, a hip young woman named Nikki Eaton, views this world of her parents’ generation with condescension and even, despite praise for her ‘terrific mom’, some contempt.
Nikki’s widowed mother divides her time between baking gift loaves of bread and adopting strays, whether cats or people. Irritation with such naïve generosity is about the only thing that unites her adult daughters: the elder, Clare, who stayed in Mt Ephraim only to become a frustrated housewife, and the