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Originally published Thursday, July 22, 2010 at 7:06 PM

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Book review

'Father of the Rain': the primal desire for a parent's love

Lily King's novel "Father of the Rain" is a father-daughter story with characters that echo those of both John Cheever (the father) and Barbara Kingsolver (the daughter). King reads Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. and Wednesday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Lily King

The author will read from "Father of the Rain" at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com), and at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com); free.

John Cheever and Barbara Kingsolver make odd literary bedfellows. But both came to mind when I was reading "Father of the Rain," the latest novel from Lily King.

"Father of the Rain" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 360 pp., $24) tells the story of a father and daughter whose bond is first sundered by divorce and his excesses, then tested again when she returns as an adult to rescue him from his drinking. As in her two previous novels, King shows once again her feel for the emotional undercurrents that control our most important relationships. Once again she demonstrates how hard it can be to connect with the people we love.

But if there's a problem with this novel, it lies in King's decision — conscious, I assume — to cast her main characters in the one- dimensional mold by which they understand each other. Ergo, the Cheever/Kingsolver comparison.

Gardiner Amory, the father, is a dead ringer for the affluent, martini-sotted WASP who Cheever rendered in fiction when the breed grazed the Northeast corridor post-World War II. Apparently the type was still thriving in the 1970s, when King's story begins. Old money and Gardiner's work as a stockbroker have provided a home with a pool and a liquor cabinet he patronizes with alarming frequency.

Caught in the narrow confines of his country-club world, Gardiner doesn't truck with his wife's progressive social and political views. But his 11-year-old daughter, Daley, is too young to recognize the difference.

Enchanted by her father's charm and affability, she'll do anything to be his pal. She gladly joins in when he proposes that the two of them streak buck-naked past a man her mother invited for dinner. She feels disloyal and displaced after the marriage breaks up.

A decade later, however, Daley has changed. As politically correct and self-righteous as any character Barbara Kingsolver ever dreamed up, she returns home to save her father after his second wife walks out. She flings aside career opportunity and an interracial romance to cook, clean and get her father into treatment. Fervently feminist and vegetarian, she's less the loving daughter than resident scold.

When she picks him up for an AA meeting, for instance, she orders him to buckle up and then notes to herself in a self-satisfied way: "There is pain on his face, pain for someone else. My father is feeling compassion."

Quick, pour me a drink, somebody. This woman has convictions, but where is her heart?

"Father of the Rain" is about the primal desire for a parent's love. But by framing it around the negative perceptions that Gardiner and Daley acquire for each other, that message gets obscured. Each gets swept up in representing his or her point of view.

In this case, the daughter is a victim not only of her father's insensitivity but also the collateral damage of divorce. He can't see the bigger picture, but neither can she. In the rightness of her own position, she finds no room for tolerance.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is the co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures." She lives in Portland.

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