Janet Beard's debut novel takes place in rural Virginia and is told in three alternating viewpoints. The book jumps back and forth primarily between Mary Alice McDonnell as she was in 1957 (a bright teenager chafing against narrow-minded small-town life in Pine Ridge) and then again 2004 (a guarded, angry 61 year-old, still chafing against narrow-minded small-town life). We learn early on that something very bad has happened in 1957, and Ms. Beard ramps up the suspense, not revealing the full extent of the damage until the closing chapters.
The third point of view is Claire, a grad student from NYU and niece to Mary Alice, who comes to Pine Ridge in an attempt to uncover her family's past. She brings with her news of the man from Pine Ridge's past who may help explain how the world-at-her-feet Mary Alice of 1957 has become so embittered in 2004.
The use of alternating viewpoints is helpful, especially as the repressed attitudes of the McDonnells of 1957 are contrasted against Claire's more free-wheeling ways in 2004. In the themes of estrangement from family and captivity to the past, this first novel is reminiscent of Anne Tyler's darker material, such as If Morning Ever Comes: A Novel or Saint Maybe.
"Beneath the Pines" is necessarily heavy-handed on occasion. Mary Alice's mother, seen only in 1957, is a woman of her time, and one can spend much of the novel cringing from her attitudes. The 2004 portions of the novel feature lengthy debates on religion and a now-dated campaign speech for John Kerry. While occasionally excessive, the religion and politics are at least organic to the characters.