The title of this book comes from a line in the Wallace Stevens poem “A Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” and the characters in this novel face much disillusionment and disappointment while chasing after tigers of their own. What starts off as a story of relationships and the strains that separation, wealth and time can place on them, turns into a dark, psychological thriller.
The story centers on five characters who each get a chapter to give their view of events that occurred during and shortly after World War II, the late fifties and the 1960s. Within each chapter, events do not always follow chronological order, but this actually makes the story more interesting as the reader slowly puts the pieces together. The action begins with the story of Nick (female) and Helena, cousins who are like sisters, having grown up together on Cape Cod at Nick’s family’s summer home, Tiger House. Nick’s family is wealthy, Helena’s is poor and has had to rely for support on Nick’s family. Nick is clearly the dominant female in the relationship and Helena is accommodating and submissive. Each has married, suffered loss and separation. Each is starting a new chapter in life at the end of the war, with Helena newly married and moving to California while Nick and her husband, just back from the war, move to Florida.
Nick is a domineering woman with striking looks and a difficulty with compromise. Those who know her, seem to both love and hate her. Her marriage with Hughes hits a rough patch when he returns from the war before a revelation or two cause Nick to make some important decisions about how she needs to “be” in order to keep her husband and have the sort of life she wants. Helena, on the other hand, seems to be swept along by the events in her life, not exerting any force or control over them, and resenting Nick’s interference and judgments but also needing her help at several critical junctures. Nick, Hughes and Helena each have a chapter in Tigers in Red Weather.
The other two chapters belong to Nick’s daughter Daisy and Helena’s son Ed. The cousins have a close relationship based on summers spent together at Tiger House. When they are both 12, they discover a dead body on the island. Their chapters look at this event along with several other important events of the summer of 1959, and then follow the characters into the ’60s. Daisy has an unsatisfactory relationship with her mother and is clearly the apple of her father’s eye. Ed is a strange boy — a loner who seems often to be in places he should not be, see things he should not see and know things he should not know. The relationship between Ed and Daisy’s father Hughes is particularly interesting, as Hughes thinks there is something really “off” about the boy, but tries to help in order to please Nick and avert further problems for Helena and Ed. The big revelations come in Ed’s chapter, but each character along the way reveals shameful truths about their own actions, or inaction, as the case may be.
Tigers in Red Weather has well drawn characters who can elicit sympathy and disgust from the reader, and a clever plot with a gripping (kinda creepy) resolution.