July 30, 1984 12:00 PM

by Jayne Anne Phillips

This is the story of a family in Bellington, W.Va. Much of it is seen through the eyes of the daughter, Danner Hampson, whose mother had a tragic girlhood. The father, Mitch, was raised by a loving aunt on a farm. He serves in the Pacific during World War II, and on his return starts a concrete business with his uncle. He loves cars—all the people in this novel love cars—and by the time he marries, he is well into his 30s and a loner. After Danner is born, her parents have a son, and she and her brother have a conventional childhood with dreams, beautifully recounted by the author, that make the children seem special. This book spans several decades, and the story is narrated by the four family members. There are some marvelous scenes: Danner’s first dance on a concrete slab by the town swimming pool; her brother’s secret search at night for a trapdoor under the bed; the Strawberry Festival parade. One summer the teenage Danner works as a waitress for a conference of Methodist ministers, and the author reveals brilliantly all the social complexities of such a situation. Machine Dreams is the best novel about an ordinary American family since Joyce Carol Oates’ Them. (Dutton/Lawrence, $16.95)

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