This novel's title may sound familiar because it was a part of Oprah's book club back in 1999. The novel was actually originally published in 1994 which I didn't realize until I was looking at the different versions available on Amazon. I guess I was under the mistaken impression that the book club is a mix of new novels (for that year, at least) and classics. Having said that, I can definitely see why this novel was selected for the book club.
The novel explores the marriage of Ellen Grier after she and her husband James are forced to move back to their hometown, Holly's Field, Wisconsin, and in with her in-laws. Her in-laws hate each other, and her mother-in-law is especially hard on Ellen and her two children. While Ellen's family is presented as much more loving, Ellen cannot turn to them support. It's 1972, and this is still a very traditional community. All of Ellen's female relatives simply tell her to be a supportive wife. However, with her husband gone for business trips all the time, the brunt of the problems fall on Ellen.
While Ellen's mother-in-law is a rather horrible person, the novel also explains how she became this way, and introduces her older spinster sister. All of the women in this novel are restrained by conventions and the limited roles available to women, and the impossibility of breaking free. Ellen befriends a school teacher who is also a divorcee, so at least she sees that by 1972, there may be other options even if she runs the risk of alienating her family and community.
I thought the novel worked very well as a representation of a particular time and place,and explored the idea of loyalty and gratitude rather well. James is divided between his parents and his own family, and his inability to draw any lines because he feels he owes his parents too much for allowing him to return home. Not only does the novel highlight how restrictive gender roles can be for women, but it also shows how James has been negatively affected by the expectations on him. Still, the novel was a bit bleakly and darkly written so while it was a good character study, it certainly isn't a good choice for a light or fun afternoon.