Olive Grossman, a 60-something editor and writer, met Helen Weinstein at their Brooklyn high school and never quite recovered. Their friendship endured through college, when the antiwar movement reached fever pitch and the radicalized Helen came to regard Olive's commitment to nonviolence as gutless.
As Conscience opens, Olive's memories of Helen are revived when her husband, Griff, the principal of a high school for troubled kids, asks to borrow her copy of Bright Morning of Pain, a tawdry bestselling novel published in the 1980s. They both know that its author, Valerie Benevento, another childhood friend of Olive, based a central character on Helen. It's soon made clear that Valerie pilfered from other lives to fortify her novel and that Olive isn't being histrionic when she says of her long-ago four-year separation from Griff, "This book had been one of our problems."
Chapters that aren't narrated by Olive (with occasional perspective from Griff) are narrated by Jean Argos, the director of a New Haven agency dedicated to serving the homeless. Olive gets to know Jean--who may or may not be able to fill the vacancy Helen left in Olive's life--after the eternally high-minded Griff becomes president of the agency's board.
With her shatteringly incisive novel, Alice Mattison, whose previous books include When We Argued All Night, again swaddles a political moment with both quotidian details and pitiless insights into human nature. Conscience leaves the reader with the understanding that being conscientious and egotistical are hardly mutually exclusive. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
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