MASON'S RETREAT is a powerful, spellbindingly readable story about a family and a place. In 1936, Edward and Edith Mason return to America after a decade in England, with their two sons Simon and Sebastien. Their destination is an old family estate on the coast of Maryland, known as 'The Retreat'. They plan to revive it, and restore their own diminished fortune. But events take a very different turn, as the house, the beautiful watery landscape, and new and insidious pressures of class tension and sexual desire begin to exert a profound effect on the family and their world. Haunting, compelling, charged with subtle eroticism and a poignant sense of transience, this is a magnificent novel. It propels Tilghman into the ranks of the great American writers.
A superb first novel from Tilghman (the collection In a Father's Place, 1990) that portrays with tenacious intelligence and wrenching intensity the nuances of family unhappiness and conflict. The story, set on Maryland's Eastern Shore in the years immediately preceding WW II, is filtered through the memories - and imagination - of Harry Mason, whose grandfather Edward had reduced a successful family business to near-disaster and, in the process, all but destroyed such remnants of his family's preeminence and pride as remained intact in his own embattled wife and children. Their mutual ordeal worsens in 1936, when, after 13 years of Edward's failures as factory owner, husband, and father, they return from England - to the Retreat, "a black hulk of a family ruin" that they laboriously transmute into a working farm that can support the disappointed Edith Mason and her boys, Sebastian and Simon, when Edward again "retreats" - this time to prosperity (his firm manufactures airplane parts) created by the looming threat of war. But in Edward's absence - not excluding the absence they had felt when he was present - the others grow apart from him and also distant from one another, and the downturn in this family's fortunes and fates can't help but worsen. Tilghman's powerful story is distinguished by deep and thoughtful characterizations (especially of the lonely Edith and of brooding, watchful Sebastian), and by an incisive understanding of the varieties of family dynamics that extends even to the smallest things parents and children tend to notice about each other. The narrative has a single serious flaw: Recurring hints promise a full revelation of some great wrong in the Mason family past, but, excepting a single act of insane cruelty, none is forthcoming. Still, echoes of The Great Gatsby, William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, O'Neill, and Faulkner add further resonance to a novel that stands, despite its flaws, as a stunning individual, achievement. (Kirkus Reviews)