When John Cheever speaks, I feel his turbulent spirit directly, but experience the rest of the family dimly. In Treetops, Susan Cheever illuminates the other players in the drama. Treetops was the family summer place in New Hampshire, acquired by her grandfather Milton Charles Winternitz and enjoyed by his and subsequent generations of Winternitzes, as well as the Whitney stepchildren of his second marriage. The two groups shared and contested their experiences at Treetops.
Each summer there has a name: 1982 was the summer the chicken coops burned down, 1971 was the summer I had my last birthday there, 1969 was the summer the flood washed out the road, 1959 was Winter’s last summer, 1948 was the summer the pig fell into the well. They all form a continuum of family ties and feuds and swimming in the transparent green water of the lake and sleeping under the fragrant pinewood roofs of the cottages, and remembering the past.
Against this background the person of Mary Winternitz Cheever, John Cheever’s wife and Susan’s mother, stands out. If the short stories and the Journals are John’s books, this is Mary’s book. Surely, I had thought, this dreadful and uncaring woman against whom John is protesting in his journals cannot be real. She was certainly real to him, at times, and it could make a good story, but others found in her a different reality.
My mother kept her private life private; my father’s private life was as embarrassingly public as he could make it. He was covering his tracks, of course. What he was keeping private were his affairs with men. Maybe it was just a matter of style. My mother was obviously caught in the ancient feminine struggle between self and family. My father was just telling stories.
Her necessary efforts to develop her own interests, her separate existence, were interpreted as cruelty, abandonment and rejection. Susan sees this but is inclined to forgive him because the resulting stories are so great. Her brothers are not so sure.