Divining Women takes place in 1918, as the First World War comes to a close and the Spanish influenza epidemic begins. Mary Oliver, a young woman of privileged background and of liberal upbringing, arrives in Elm City, North Carolina, to tend to her aunt Maureen, who is in the final stages of a difficult pregnancy. When she arrives, Mary soon discovers that the marriage between her half-uncle Troop and Maureen is a loveless and unhealthy one, with Troop terrorizing his wife mercilessly. Living with Troop’s abusiveness brings Mary and Maureen closer, and together the two women find the strength to make their own lives, on their own terms.
This is a simple tale; the backdrop of the war and influenza epidemic do not influence the characters overly much, and the biggest dramas are those which take place, for the most part, within Troop’s house. Gibbons deftly creates a strong sense of isolation and gothic atmosphere; one can feel how suffocated Maureen must have been until Mary arrived. Though the story is uncomplicated, it is never dull. The women are all engaging and complex characters, particularly Mary and her mother, whose letters to Mary serve to disrupt the sense of hopelessness that Troop tries so hard to maintain. Gibbons writes with quiet grace, her prose alternately poignant and comic; this novel was a too-brief delight to read.