Picks and Pans Review: Private Altars

updated 03/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Katherine Mosby

Eccentric heroine, decaying gothic mansion, intolerant townsfolk—can these well-worn elements be refashioned into something new? Vienna Daniels, an educated, well-bred Yankee, is brought as a bride to Winsville, W.Va., in the 1920s. With little affection for the local society that Willard, her southern-bred husband, has charmed, she manages to alienate everyone except the town's outcasts: the black servants and the two men who secretly love her, boozy Dr. Barstow and the Daniels' reclusive neighbor John Aimes.

The birth of their daughter Willa sours the Danielses' relationship, and Willard's drinking and carousing culminate in a final, violent domestic argument. After it, Willard leaves with a shoulder full of buckshot and Vienna takes to her bed for seven weeks.

Our heroine stays on at the mansion to raise Willa and Elliot, the son born after the separation. She also gets to work on a 12-volume epic poem, while the protective world she has built begins to fracture. Mosby, a poet herself, writes with fluid grace but fails to give fresh life to the southern gothic form. Her images are magical, but her narrative has no momentum, and her central characters are too ethereal to have any real bite. (Random House, $21)

From Our Partners