There’s something Victorian about the prologue of Anne Whitney Pierce’s new novel, “Down to the River.” It’s rare to find prologues in contemporary novels at all, and rarer still that such opening pages lay out the main characters’ deliciously thick backstory. Pierce, who spends her summers in Maine and is the author of two previous books, pulls it off beautifully in her introduction to the Potts family, setting the emotional and psychological stage for the dramas to come.

Remi and Nash Potts, identical twin brothers who’d “grown up riding the frayed coattails of an old and dwindling fortune made by their great-grandfather in frozen food,” enjoyed a privileged childhood marred by the presence of a drunk father who squandered the family’s money before dying under mysterious circumstances that no one looked too closely at. Like all the men in their family up to that point, the twins attended Harvard where they “muddled through on athletic prowess and capable if not brilliant minds, riding the tide of sturdy genes, a shaky sense of entitlement, and the old family name.”

By the time the novel opens, Remi and Nash are living in adjoining houses in Cambridge bought with the last of their meager inheritance, and jointly running a sporting goods store. Each, respectively, has a wife and three children. Only the youngest, Hen (short for Henry; Remi’s son) and Chickie (a nickname better suited to the girl’s temperament than her real name, Minerva; Nash’s), still live at home. In 1966, when the first chapter after the prologue begins, the cousins are 14 and as thick as thieves, having spent their childhoods together, nearly siblings.

Their close and comfortable relationship begins to change that summer, though. Chickie’s mother, Violet, keeps trying to get her youngest daughter to behave more like a teenage girl and less like the burping, dirty-socked tomboy she still is. Remi, meanwhile, noticing how he notices Chickie’s pubescent body, tries to have a man-to-man conversation with gentle Hen. The effect is that Hen becomes shyer and less comfortable with Chickie, pulling away without telling her exactly why.

Hen and Chickie aren’t the only ones whose relationships are changing, though. As the novel moves forward in time to 1969 and then 1970, the Potts family slowly comes apart at the seams. Formerly stay-at-home moms, Violet opens a stationary store and Remi’s wife Faye begins running a pottery studio. Both women crave a freedom they haven’t had since before their children were born, and perhaps not even then, since they married young, before they had a chance to figure out what they wanted other than the socially prescribed husband and family. Remi and Nash sink deeper into their alcoholism, becoming less functional by the day. While Nash finds solace in anti-war activism for a time, Remi’s aggrieved anger – held tightly since an incident of impotence he never told Nash about – begins to spiral out of his control.

The Potts’s unraveling as a family propels the novel forward just as surely as the characters’ individual attempts at change and growth. It’s a special pleasure to witness Chickie and Hen growing up, the way their disgust with their parents slowly yields to something more like understanding and occasional pity. When Hen sees a friend of his sister’s turning her nose up at just how many things his parents have, he “feels a rush of dull and fierce love for his mother, for the home she’s tried to make, a fury at these people who dare laugh at someone they don’t even know, someone as fine as his mother could be.”

The cousins also begin to understand how adulthood isn’t as different as they might have thought; Chickie is on the brink of having sex for the first time with a motorcycle-riding, leather-jacketed youth named Elvis, “just a boy, with a toothless grandfather, a boy who hates his name, just the way she hates hers, who’s embarrassed to be naked in front of her, even though he’s stoned out of his mind.”

Pierce’s prose is fluent in lengthy and often wry descriptions that clearly paint her characters’ temperament, foibles, and class and generational peculiarities and “Down to the River” is a beautiful novel of a family both losing and finding itself.

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and author of the novel “All My Mother’s Lovers.”

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