Author: John Cheever
First published: 1957
Locale: St. Botolphs, Massachusetts; Washington, D.C.; and New York City
Time: The 1890's to the 1950's
Moses Wapshot, the handsome, promising elder son of Leander and Sarah Wapshot. His quasi-idyllic life in St. Botolphs, a formerly prosperous Massachusetts river town, comes to an abrupt end when his aunt Honora discovers his affair with Rosalie Young. In the same way that earlier generations of young Wapshot males were sent to sea, Moses is sent out into a tempestuous modern America. In Washington, D.C., he loses his government job because his affair with a singer named Beatrice makes him a security risk. Immediately afterward, a chance meeting leads to a well-paying position in New York and in turn to his meeting Melissa Scaddon, a distant relation. He later marries her.
Coverly Wapshot, Moses' younger, less promising, and less manly brother. He too leaves St. Botolphs, but secretly and voluntarily, and his odyssey proves even more wayward. Ill-prepared for life outside the confines of his sleepy home-town, he tries to secure a job at a relative's factory in New York only to be judged unemployable on the basis of his emotional profile. He is hired as a stock boy in a department store and takes night classes in computer taping. He meets his future wife, Betsey, in the sandwich shop where she works. After a nine-month posting on a Pacific island, Coverly takes up residence in Remsen Park, the monotonously modern residential area attached to the rocket-launching center where he has been reassigned. Coverly's slapstick love for his “sandwich-shop Venus” is beset by troubles, but eventually the two are reunited and produce a male heir.
Leander Wapshot, the last of the seafaring and journal-keeping Wapshots. His New England roots go back to 1630. Leander's attachment to the sea is real but takes the decidedly reduced form of ferrying passengers across the bay to a local amusement park aboard the thirty-year-old Topaze. Boyishly enthusiastic and appealingly ceremonious and celebratory, he suffers numerous blows to his self-esteem, primarily at the hands of his cousin Honora, who holds the family purse strings and who puts the Topaze up for sale, and his wife Sarah, who later converts the Topaze into a floating gift shop. Deprived of his usefulness, Leander begins writing what he calls his autobiography or confession. Just as his sons, now seemingly secure, are about to return home and buy him a boat, Leander declares that he intends to return to the sea (as he grandly and perhaps ambiguously puts it), quits his job at the local silver factory, and soon afterward drowns, perhaps intentionally. In death, Leander gets what he rarely did in life: the last word, in the form of the “Advice to my Sons” with which the novel concludes.
Honora, Leander's cousin, born in Polynesia to missionaries and reared by her Uncle Lorenzo. She is the Wapshot clan's imperious and decidedly eccentric matriarch. Honora is childless, although she was married briefly to a Spaniard who claimed to be a marquis. The marriage disappointed her in some unspecified, presumably sexual, way. According to her long-suffering yet strangely faithful housekeeper Maggie, Honora represents “some naked human force,” one that Leander would define as both financial and emasculating. Heir to Lorenzo's fortune, she in effect controls the futures of all the Wapshots, including Leander's sons, whom she has designated her heirs on a contingent basis, stipulating that they must marry and produce male heirs.
Sarah Wapshot, Leander's wife and another of the controlling forces in his life. She feminizes their younger son and transforms Leander's boat into a floating gift shop.
Betsey MacCaffery Wapshot, Coverly's wife. An orphan from Georgia, she meets Coverly while working in a New York sandwich shop. In comically but also pathologically unfriendly Remsen, her loneliness appears at once ludicrous and nightmarishly real, and her search for a friend seems both Herculean and hilarious. Although she leaves Coverly, taking all their savings, they eventually reconcile, with more than a hint that they, or at least he, will not live happily ever after.
Melissa Scaddon Wapshot, Cousin Justina's beautiful ward, later Moses' wife. She promises to marry Moses if they can live with Justina. Following their wedding, Melissa undergoes a transformation: The sensuous fiancée is transmogrified into an asexual, emasculating wife until a fire destroys Justina's home, breaking the spell that held Melissa in thrall.
Rosalie Young, a minister's daughter whose loneliness and great expectations lead her to confuse sex with love. She convalesces at the Wapshots following a car accident and has a brief affair with Moses.
Clarissa, a girl made pregnant by a young Leander's aged employer, who then coaxes Leander to marry her. Leander quickly comes to love her, but soon after the birth of a daughter, she commits suicide. Clarissa's story is recounted in Leander's autobiography. The daughter, Helen Rutherford, later comes back to haunt Leander, mistakenly thinking that he is her father, and is indirectly responsible for his wrecking the Topaze.
Pancras, Coverly's boss at the rocket center. His homo-sexual advances shortly after Betsey's departure leave Coverly unnerved and sexually uncertain, feeling unworthy and exiled.
Justina Molesworth Scaddon, the seventy-five-year-old widow of a five-and-dime store magnate. Ensconced in her Hudson River Valley castle (a cross between Randolph Hearst's San Simeon and Edgar Allan Poe's House of Usher), she is the novel's most imperious and most comically grotesque female. She is sexless and vengeful.