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The personal values of what could be called Upper Boston are as important as the two main characters Mrs. Bemis and Alice Matthews, the young psychiatrist who tries to help her in journalist and author Sedgwick's engaging and warm if finally confounding novel. Since Madeline Bemis is 76 when Dr. Matthews finds her curled up almost catatonic on a bed in Filene's department store, it's obvious that treating her will involve considerable backtracking. Equally obvious is that these two women one from a working-class family in a rust-belt town, the other imperious and rigid after a lifetime in the Brahmin precincts will find commonalities in the process. When she was 18, Madeline was engaged to a bomber copilot stationed in England during WWII. Waiting at home for her life to begin, she had an affair with an Irish gardener who left her pregnant. She was sent away to have the baby and give him up for adoption. When her fiance returned, permanently disabled, they settled into a remote marriage. Sedgwick (The Dark House) creates a striking portrait of Mrs. Bemis's time and place, as well as of likable but insecure Dr. Matthews, who is battling her own professional and emotional problems. The plotting is less assured, with a central mystery that's resolved in a melodramatic fashion, but the narrative succeeds as an appealing story of a shared journey.
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Sedgwick's second novel is not dissimilar in theme to his first (The Dark House, 2000)--that is, the mysteries trapped within each of us crying to be let out. The Mrs. Bemis in question is an elderly, aristocratic lady who is discovered collapsed on a mattress in Filene's in Boston in a catatonic state, resulting in her being sent to a psychiatric hospital. Psychologist Alice Matthews takes a keen interest in getting Mrs. Bemis' trust, the better to unravel her story. But the irony is that the title could just as easily have been The Education of Alice Matthews, as in breaking through to the heart of her patient, Alice discovers much about her own failed relationship and, ultimately, her true love. Lest one get the idea that this is simply a high-class soap opera, there is a mystery at the heart of Mrs. Bemis' story that remains unresolved up until the last several pages. Sedgwick is able to demonstrate gracefully that between the generations there is much more in common than most might realize. Allen Weakland
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