In Linda Nevin's novel Commonwealth Avenue, Zoe Hillyard is an underappreciated forty-year-old film production designer who returns to her native Boston to work on a film set. Zoe encounters old secrets, family rivalries, and the diary of her great grandmother from 1902, which was written when she turned forty herself.
Set primarily in an elegant Victorian mansion on the grand Boston boulevard of the title, Nevins's literate and appealing first novel centers on two strong women born generations apart in the same aristocratic family. Augusta Hillyard and her great-granddaughter, Zoe, share an uncommon love for the past and for their ancestral home. The novel opens in 1902, as Augusta Hillyard, who has just turned 40, begins a diary while lying "abed" in the mansion. Alternating between four decades of Augusta's intimate diary entries and a less engaging, third-person chronicle about Zoe set mostly in the 1980s, the narrative offers an absorbing portrait of a privileged yet dysfunctional family. Fascinated with the Victorian era ever since she and her brother, Arthur, were raised in the mansion by Augusta's disagreeable daughter, Annabelle, Zoe, who's now 40 herself, gets her big break as a production designer on a period film. She soon jeopardizes her Hollywood dream job by returning to Commonwealth Avenue to help her estranged brother, devastated by Annabelle's unexpected stroke. A part-time music teacher, Arthur has secretly squandered the family fortune caring for his aging great aunt, and he may even lose the family "shrine." Despite weak male characters and lukewarm suspense over the fate of the mansion, this novel captures with color and affection the rich nuances of early 20th-century life.