Was there a new code? What, at the very bottom of her heart, did she believe in? Did it differ, fundamentally, from her grandmother's set of values? Courage, love, loyalty. The scene shifted, but there were no new virtues. Who needed any new ones?
Amy has escaped vague marital problems in New York for the comforting environment of her childhood home in Michigan. Unfortunately for Amy, her visit home is not the relaxing escape she envisioned. As the heat bears down on the small Midwestern town, the family quietly implodes leaving Amy's poor father and mother (the most sensible of the bunch) to clean up the mess. Meanwhile, Amy tries to help smooth things over as best as she can, but she's wrestling with major issues of her own.
Amy is struggling with who she is and how to be: she is a married mother, but she is deeply unhappy and dissatisfied but not exactly sure why. She seeks guidance from her female relatives because she's sure if she just learns the right rules, she will know how to behave. She muses on people's responsibilities and duties to one another particularly when they conflict with one's secret life and responsibility to be true to oneself. She wonders about the shifting nature of self, how it changes depending on your role as parent, child, spouse, or sibling. Even as Amy struggles to understand herself and what is important to her, she sees clearly the nature of her assorted family members, which in turn helps her clarify her own feelings and beliefs.
This was really a lovely book and it was somewhat surprising but gratifying to see that not much has changed in terms of how we understand one another and ourselves since the book was written in 1932. Yes, there are some unpleasant antiquated bits: Italians are dismissed as a bunch of bootlegging immigrants; there isn't much understanding towards the mentally ill; the one lesbian in the novel is vindictive and unpleasant (though so are many other family members). But there were so many perfect little insights: "A lifetime's too short to find your way about another's heart, without blunderings and mistakes. That's why these folks nowadays are so foolish, rushing into marriage, out of it, into another. They never do anything but make a beginning, and then make the same beginning again. They think there's nothing else, besides that crazy excitement at the first.""It had been easier, she thought, to live when you knew exactly what you believed, what was right, what you and everyone else should do. But wasn't it ridiculous not to be sure where resentment should begin, not to know whether you were a selfish prig, or -- well, what? -- an injured woman?""You can't ever think out a person, coldly, separate from him, because you are different, yourself, when you are apart.""Perhaps love always ran that course. You loved a man, you lived with him, tried to make a sort of life with him, and you ceased to look at him except as he affected you...You responded to inflections of voice, to overtones, in terms of your own desires and failures. And the man you loved became a sort of scapegoat for the difficulties not in love, but in the whole business of living."
I think the important point is that there isn't a set of rules for relationships; the essential thing is figuring out what works for you: the most admirable characters in the book (Amy's mother Catherine, Felice, Laurance, and even her grandmother) seemingly prioritize their spouses above their own needs and wants, but in the end, they remain truer to themselves than all the other characters in the novel and are ultimately happier.