Tag Archives: dysfunctional family

Road Ends by Mary Lawson

9780345808097_p0_v2_s192x300  Like Mary Lawson’s other books, Crow Lake and her Man Booker nominee The Other Side of the Bridge, the action in Road Ends is in the cold remote area of North Canada, where winters are long and hard, a setting conducive to unforgiving introspection.  The narrative of Road Ends is compelling, and you are sad for almost everyone.

The story revolves around Megan, the only girl in a family of seven brothers.   As the second oldest and only girl, Megan has been running the household almost since she could walk; now at twenty-one, she is ready to leave to start her own life in London.

Although Lawson creates a supporting cast, the strong narrative develops from Megan, her father Edward, and oldest son, Tom, with their thoughts and perspectives in alternating chapters.  Megan’s mother, Emily, literally wanders in and out of the story, always with a baby on her shoulder, as she drifts into dementia and tries to find her own comfort in the steady stream of newborns.

Edward, lost in his shattered dreams, hides from the family chaos by retreating to his study to read about exotic places he has never been.  While two of his sons are toying with arson and his four year old, Adam, is wetting the bed, Edward is purposely oblivious.  His avoidance supposedly stems from his abusive father, his childhood in poverty, a fatal fire, and the war, but it’s hard not to want to shake him into accepting responsibility for his family – beyond being the breadwinner.

Tom, who graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering, is frozen in grief and guilt when his best friend commits suicide.  He foregoes promising job offers and returns home to run the town’s snowplow through the incessant and constant snowstorms.  Slowly, he emerges from his fog – prompted by the needs of his four year old brother, a neglected little boy, who wanders around his house unbathed and hungry, because his mother’s attention is fixated on yet another infant, her ninth.

Megan is the catalyst for the family’s decline.  Without her, everything falls apart, but it seems to take awhile before anyone notices, despite the dirty house, the empty refrigerator, and the piles of dirty clothes.  After landing in London, she stumbles on a job in a department store but finds it boring.  Eventually, she connects with a couple who are opening a new hotel and are looking for someone to help with the renovation and management of the housekeeping.  Ironically, Megan is happier working at the hotel,  doing a job strangely similar to the one she had at home with her family.

The ending is somewhat disappointing if you are a romantic and expect Megan to find true love and an exciting career in a new life across the sea.  Her choices are predicable and realistic; there is some escape from the bonds of family in this story for the boys, but sadly not for Megan.  Nevertheless, Lawson manages to project a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment for her main character.

I found phrases I noted down to remember, as I did with her other novels, but laughed out loud in recognition when I read Tom’s commentary:

“There’s a law of nature…that says you should never, ever allow yourself to think for a single minute that things are finally getting better because Fate just won’t be able to resist cutting you off at the knees.”

Related Reviews:

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

51vo9iqcxjl-_ac_us174_Ann Patchett knows the power of the sudden jolt in her stories.  I remember finding it in Bel Canto and in State of Wonder, but I almost missed it in her latest novel – Commonwealth.  The story slowly unravels, as two families are torn apart by pride and lust, and then slowly reassembled through love.  Amazingly, the crises seem almost familiar, and the real secret of survival may be the illusions and perceptions the characters carry with them through years of denial.

Patchett sows the seeds in her opening gambit when beautiful Beverly, married to her policeman husband,  passionately kisses the handsome attorney, Bert Cousins, father to three small children and one on the way, at her daughter’s christening.  Was it the gin in the orange juice or deeper discontent driving their passion?  The reader doesn’t have to wait long before Patchett has the two moved to Virginia with Beverley’s two little girls, Caroline and Franny.  In the summer, Bert’s four children join in – a blended family of intolerance.

While the two lovebirds are cementing their attraction, the children suffer each new chapter of their lives, hating each other and the loss of their old lives, angry and unforgiving.  They run wild in the summer, and the older children regularly drug Albie, the youngest, with Benadryl to shut him down and keep him out of their antics. While Teresa, mother of Bert’s four hellions, is back in California working at her new job, Beverly finds herself hiding in her air-conditioned car in Virginia to escape the children.

Patchett cleverly shifts gears and creates suspense by teasing the reader with cliffhangers as she suddenly jumps from present to past and future in alternating chapters spanning fifty years.  The children speak as adults, some of whom have forged unlikely alliances.  The first indication of a change in atmosphere in the novel comes with the death of the eldest boy, Cal, with lingering repercussions for the other children, as they reveal their roles in the coverup.

But the big jolt comes later in the book, when Franny’s new love, the older Leon Posen, a famous writer who has hit writer’s block after his last big success, creates his masterpiece – titled “Commonwealth.”  Patchett is so convincing, I found myself googling Posen and looking for his book, almost missing the point of his stealing Franny’s stories about her childhood for his use.  Dysfunctional families may be fodder for a bestseller, but when Posen uses the details of Cal’s death and the children’s secret drugging of Albie, fact and fiction become alarmingly the same – exposing harmful secrets.  I wondered if Patchett was also sending a subtle message with the title – the possibility of her using stories from her own life in her fiction?

Just as the slide you went down as a child seemed so much bigger than it does to you as an adult, and just as the teacher you idolized as a child seems not as old when you are grown, the mere action of having her adult characters look back on their time together as children offers a philosophical and healing balm.  They all adjust and forgive, and they see their parents’ actions and their own frantic childhoods from a wiser perspective.

Each of us plays the cards we are dealt, and Patchett offers the consolation that however our lives evolve, we can find some way to be true to ourselves and those we love.

Commonwealth is another winner from Ann Patchett, one of my favorite writers.  I could not stop reading the book until I finished in the wee hours of the morning, and I may have to read it again.

 

 

Have You Checked the Children

9781250045379_p0_v3_s192x300    Using a phrase from a macabre mystery movie, Ann Leary lulls the reader into a suspenseful family drama in The Children.  The tale of the blended Whitman family follows a seemingly routine path, as Leary introduces the quirks of each character, but like all her stories, Leary always has hidden and surprising twists.

Charlotte Maynard, the reclusive narrator, writes a blog about life as a harried housewife with problem children; she does so well she has acquired sponsors who pay her to post everyday.  Charlotte is a fraud.  She is not married, has no children, and successfully  plays on the anonymity and possibilities of the internet and vulnerable users.

Although Charlotte’s mendaciousness sets the tone for all the other characters, Leary carefully keeps their facades in tact until almost the end of the book. All have secrets: Laurel, the too perfect girlfriend; Sally, the talented but disturbed sister; Spin, the likable step-brother and heir to the estate; Everett, boyfriend and dog whisperer.

The story revolves around familiar themes – old money, New England family, and greed.  After Whit Whitman dies, his second wife and her daughters live on in the lakefront estate; however, his sons own the estate, with a provision in the family trust that allows their step-mother to stay. When Spin, the youngest brings his fiancé home, cracks start to appear in the family relationships, with resentments and old wounds threatening to bring down the house with humor and intrigue.

If you enjoyed Leary’s The Good House (soon to be a film with Meryl Streep), you will like The Children – an easy and enjoyable read with some well-appreciated subliminal thoughts on real estate lust and computer hacking.

Related Review:   The Good House

 

 

 

 

The Nest

9780062414212_p0_v3_s192x300A million dollar book?  Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney made headlines last year when Harper Collins publishers paid her a million dollar advance for her debut novel The Nest.  With a ten percent commission on sales, the sales expectation is for at least one million copies.

The Nest tells the story of the dysfunctional Plumb family of four brothers and sisters who are counting on an inheritance, held in trust until the youngest turns forty.  Each has already spent most of the money in expectation of receiving a lucrative share. When their mother breaks the trust to bail out the eldest, Leo, the others are determined to get their money back.

Sweeney weaves old grudges together, exposing greed and irresponsibility in the siblings, while using their partners as the balance for trust and selflessness. The setting is New York City and Brooklyn, with familiar landmarks marking the action, but more familiar are the tense moments among the characters.

Each sibling fulfills a well marked role: Leo, the eldest, and “most charming,” who sells his successful publishing business, squandering the proceeds; Bea, “the brightest,” an aspiring writer suffering from writer’s block after the death of her husband; Jack, “the most resourceful,” gay antique dealer whose store never makes a profit; Melody, “the youngest” whose birthday will trigger the release of the money – married to a forbearing husband and the mother of teenage twins, trying to keep up financially and emotionally.  

Sweeney adds subplots to add interest.  The 911 fireman who lost his wife at Ground Zero, finds an expensive Rodin sculpture while sifting through the ashes, and hides it in his apartment until Jack, the antique dealer who recognizes its worth, discovers it.  Stephanie, the literary agent who is in love with Leo,  changes her life by taking him back. And, the catalyst for the dispersal of the trust – the opening scene with a drunken Leo and a young waitress who drive away from a wedding party.  All ends well – sort of – with the old moral of love being more important than money.   

I read the book in a day and enjoyed it; I kept reading, hoping for a good resolution, and Sweeney neatly ties up all the loose strings in the end.  Was it worth a million dollars?  You’ll have to read it to decide for yourself.

According to Jennifer Maloney of The Wall Street Journal, the typical advance for a literary debut novel remains less than $100,000, yet other first time literary novelists have recently made the million dollar club, including:

  • Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s  The Language of Flowers
  • Anton DiSclafani’s The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls
  • Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family
  • Stephanie Clifford’s Everybody Rise

City on Fire by first-time novelist Garth Risk Hallberg received a nearly $2 million advance from Alfred A. Knopf, one of the largest ever for a literary debut.

Related Reviews:

Silver Sparrow

One husband – two wives – a daughter with each: one wife and daughter live in ignorant bliss; the others spy on their counterparts as they live their parallel lives in Atlanta -unknown and in secret.  In Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones creates a story with quiet drama and private misery.

James Witherspoon is a black man with a stutter  –

“…a bit on the short side and wore glasses thick as a slice of Wonder bread…”

No handsome lothario – but he did the right thing and married Laverne when he got her pregnant at 14, and then falls in love with Gwen and marries her when she becomes pregnant.

Jones uses the first half of her book to focus on Gwen and Dana’s secret life with James. Gwen has always known James is married; she’s made her peace with being the other woman, but knows how to manipulate his guilt into gifts for their daughter, Dana. Although she was working at a retail store when she met James, who came in to buy an anniversary present for his wife, she successfully completes her practical nursing degree to supplement James’s meager support.

Gwen and Dana regularly embark on “surveil” trips – to check out the other wife and daughter, their house with the attached beauty salon, what they are wearing, how they live – blackmailing James with the information, unsuccessfully trying to match their lives.  Jones makes their place as second-best pathetic yet resilient, and the masquerade could continue indefinitely – with Dana not allowed to attend the same school or work at the same summer job as her sister Chaurisse; James is determined to keep his lives separate.  If Dana would be satisfied with the deception, she could have graduated from Mt. Holyoke in South Hadley, and someday Gwen might have turned up dressed in widow’s black at his funeral.  But Dana is not happy with her secret standing, and her longing to be known as her father’s daughter is the quiet time bomb that you expect to explode.

In the second half of the book, Jones backtracks to tell the other side – Laverne pregnant at 14, losing the baby, forced to drop out of high school, giving birth to a daughter a few months after Dana is born.  After the ground work is laid, Jones begins her campaign to cross the lives of the two daughters.  They meet as teenagers, but only Dana knows it is her sister, Chaurisse, that she has been stalking.  As their strange friendship develops, Chaurisse unknowingly reveals pieces of her private life.  In a pivotal scene, the two girls have a flat tire on their way to a party.  Chaurisse calls her father for help; Dana, in a panic not to be discovered, calls her mother for a ride.  James arrives with his friend Raleigh, at the same time as Gwen, but only Chaurisse is unaware of the relationships.

At times, you don’t know who is more to blame – James for his deceit or Gwen for her complicity.   But the novel is about his daughters: one secure in her family life, not as bright or pretty as her illegitimate sister, but blissfully ignorant of her father’s deception; the other, a silver girl – beautiful and smart – who sees her father only once a week for dinner, cringing with a desperate yearning under the veil of being second-best that ruins her life.

The ending is unforgiving but realistic.  What a great book for a group discussion.  So many possibilities to think about:

What if Dana had kept away from Chaurisse?  Was her longing for a legitimate father – or was it a sister she craved?   What if Raleigh had married Gwen?  Was Laverne really that clueless or did she choose not to know?  Would you have ended the story differently?

Set in Atlanta, Silver Sparrow has the authenticity that is lacking in The Help.  No happy endings here, but a thoughtful and compelling story – that could be true.