As forty-something Wilson Ravan looks back over that fateful summer before college in 1950s Chicago, he savors a lost innocence, moving away from the class distinctions his parents embraced, a man who has devoted his life to a different set of values. But back then, running from day job at a tabloid newspaper to nights at debutante balls, Wils drifts back and forth between these unique universes, savoring the differences, the subtle nuances missed by most young men his age.
In a way, the young Wils is simply the unformed, older Wils, already watching and questioning the values of those around him, perched on the cusp of the rest of his life, the years with his parents soon to be left behind along with childhood memories. Wilson echoes his parents' choices - college, the coming out parties of North Shore debutantes, an esoteric blend of wealth and privilege: "So that year we all grew apart, secessionist provinces of an unstable nation." With flashes of insight into the inherent complications of marriage, Wils is preoccupied with his own emerging future.
The characters embrace a sense of place that is extraordinary, reflecting the history of the Eisenhower years, post-World War II, conservative ideology permeating a generation of businessmen, industrialists and rabid anti-Communists in the McCarthy era. The Ravan family supports the Republican agenda, especially Teddy Ravan, who feels betrayed, his business mired in a worker's strike: "You played as a team for the team, a philosophy that endured a lifetime."
Wils becomes infatuated with Aurora Brule, the daughter of a prominent Chicago Freudian, a psychiatrist with a troubled history. With a temperament older than his nineteen years, Wils is always on the way to the rest of his life, caught up in the present without noticing his missteps, too busy planning the years ahead with Aurora to notice the pitfalls. Through his intense pursuit of Aurora, Wils falls victim to youthful hubris, the undoing of first love as he misjudges her commitment.
The novel is infused with subtlety, weaving together the various elements of politics and power, a nation on the rebound from World War II but soon to engage the Korean War, parents caught in the complexities of their maturing marriage and the utopian life of the North Shore debutantes in a sheltered arena where the future offers only promise and wealth.
This is a remarkable book on many levels, deeply intuitive and observant. The prose is richly textured and compelling, a delicate balance of Chicago politics, interpersonal relationships and the rarified world of privilege. Finally, Wils' life assumes a shape he never imagined, where "winning was not the only thing; often, it wasn't anything."