This novel is both a love story and the history of the Skane family's Museum of Living Art, as it changes from a small private museum into a large public institution, what Emerson called "the lengthened shadow of one man." That man, that shadow, the museum's founder, permeates the novel. Though long dead, his ideas, his wishes, his dreams struggle to stay alive in the consciousness of his son who sits on the museum's board. The son's relationship to his sister and other trustees is deeply experienced within the context of seemingly cold, businesslike board meetings and, outside the boardroom, in equally intense relationships with two women, a painter and an art historian, as he, on his own behalf as well as his father's, resists the institutionalization of dreams.
Despite its legalistic impersonality, Em knew how difficult this letter must have been to write - or even to have had written. He imagined discussions between lawyer and client about spreading the gift over five years, the lawyer being tactful, Helen being - what? - hopeful? - self - deluding? Despite Alton Riggs's "suggestion," Em had long since decided never to ask her for such a letter, but rather, if necessary, to double his own pledge. Now once again he leaned over and kissed her hollow cheek.
"What about the others, besides Bill?"
"Leslie's the biggest surprise. Though I've often questioned her motives, she did suggest Louis, and she's been absolutely supportive on every design issue that's come up. Maybe she sees the new building as a way to re-establish our side of the family. Whatever it is, she's so excited I'm almost beginning to like her."
"As children you were closer than you think," Helen shut her eyes for a moment, trying to remember. "You teased her and she bossed you and all that, but underneath I'm not sure if you two didn't get along better than most brothers do with older sisters."
Em wasn't sure either. He shrugged, moved on to the remaining member of his committee: Ellis Murdoch.
"He attended this last meeting. He's just back from Europe-"
"I know. He's the only one from the museum, besides you, who's come to see me. The people from other organizations I'm involved with visit, but your family - I wouldn't give a dime to the museum, if it weren't for you-" Her eyes shut again - and her mouth, on an unintelligible phrase, perhaps "and your father."
"Until Ellis returned Byron Lord had been feeding us the information about the museum's operation. D'you know By?"
There was no response. Helen was asleep, breathing deeply. Em tiptoed from the room. All that about Ellis's and By's opposed ideas concerning lighting, hanging, systems of movable partitioning, almost everything - all that could wait until Em's next visit.