Marly Swick's first novel -- about a woman's emotional instability and the quiet crumbling of her family, told from the point of view of the adolescent daughter -- is nicely written, observant and bloodless. It engages you now and then with its gentle acuity, but ultimately drifts out of grasp.
When the book opens, in the early 1960s, young Suzanne Keller and her family are about to move into a new house paid for by dad, a nice-guy-with-simple-needs optometrist. Suzanne's mother, Helen, who's intelligent, sensitive and subject to bouts of depression, seems to have blossomed since JFK's election. Her mild crush on him kicks her vivaciousness into high gear, but her stability begins to teeter after his election. ("For days on end my mother had dragged herself around the house in her bathrobe, barely speaking. Not bothering to cook or clean or even bathe ... A walking zombie.") One day Suzanne returns from school to find that her mother is preparing to whisk her off on a road trip to her hometown in Nebraska. There, Suzanne begins to learn the secrets of her mother's past, which include a sensational crime of passion whose memory Helen just can't shake.
Swick's strong suit here is her sensitivity to the subtle (and sometimes flagrant) intellectual persecution faced by any number of women who came of age and married before the '70s, women who found their intelligence and their curiosity dulled or buried by husbands who couldn't (or wouldn't) acknowledge their smarts. Suzanne's father isn't painted as a villain, but his cluelessness about his wife's crushed spirit makes him an outsider.
Time and again, though, Swick refers to some aspect of Kennedy family history, like Chappaquidick or Jackie's remarriage, as if anchoring her story with cultural links will somehow make it richer; instead, the references feel contrived. And in the end, although we know a lot about how Helen's problems started, we don't learn much about how she solved them -- they seem to vanish after she gets her own apartment and starts taking night classes. Maybe that's why "Paper Wings" just doesn't resonate: We understand perfectly why Helen cracked, but we're left by the side of the highway for much of her road trip back.