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-by Larry Woiwode

Inclinations of the Heart

Mason's Retreat

By Christopher Tilghman

Random House

290pp.; $22

It is 1936, and the French liner Normandie is plowing through the North Atlantic toward America. At least one family on its passenger list, the Masons, expatriates of a sort, will never be the same. For the previous dozen years, Edward Mason and his wife, Edith, and their sons, Sebastien and Simon, have lived in England. Edward, trained as an engineer, owns and runs a machine-tool plant in Manchester, but the Depression has nearly wiped him out. For the past few years, the family has lived in a series of increasingly bare or squalid flats, often loaned to them rent-free.

Now Edward is returning the family to an estate he owns in Maryland--as he explains with some irritation to another passenger, the pushy wife of a tire manufacturer from Akron whose husband has been cutting deals with the Germans. What he does not explain is that the estate was bequeathed to him by a dotty aunt, and he has never seen it; the "mansion" on a thousand acres has stood unoccupied during their years in England. Yet Edward has gone even deeper in debt to bring his family across the Atlantic--on a luxury liner, no less--and settle them at this place called ("improbably," as the narrator puts it) The Retreat.

This narrator, as we learn through the effortless unfolding of his story, is the grandson of Edward Mason. His name is Harry, and his tale opens at a time before he was born. Generational effects, he suggests, are that ingrained, settled, and enduring; he "knows that this story, told to him over and over again for reasons that he can barely imagine, is now his to tell his own children, to be taken well or badly, to be believed wholly or in part, like a kiss."

As details accumulate in the first dozen pages of Mason's Retreat, in both broad and subtle strokes, with the assurance of a writer who knows his way, we come to feel we've known the Masons, or their exact counterparts, our whole lives. While Edward walks the decks of the Normandie ...

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