Bookworm: The Fiction of Family

Shortly after an extremely stressful family gathering last August, I found myself getting books from the library that focused on family…and the fairly common dysfunction that goes along with having one. Below are my reviews of the three major ones, in the order that they were read (WARNING – there are spoilers, but I tried to keep them to a minimum):

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Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan, was picked as an afterthought, when I was put on the waiting list for The Red House (review below). Discovery of this book (mostly driven by the title, since I grew up in Maine) was what you would call “a happy accident.” First, a snippet from the book jacket:

…Introducing four unforgettable women who have nothing in common but the fact that, like it or not, they’re family….As three generations of Kelleher women descend on the [family] property one summer, each brings her own hopes and fears. Maggie is thirty-two and pregnant, waiting for the perfect moment to tell her imperfect boyfriend the news; Ann Marie, a Kelleher by marriage, is channeling her domestic frustration into a dollhouse obsession and an ill-advised crush; Kathleen, the black sheep, never wanted to set foot in the cottage again; and Alice, the matriarch at the center of it all, would trade every floorboard for a chance to undo the events of one night, long ago.

It sounded fairly cookie-cutter. Scene: The family beach house in Maine. Four women in the same family who don’t get along because they’re all completely polar opposite personality types who also all happen to be harboring some painful/dramatic secret from the past/present. But Sullivan never travels too far into the realm of stereotypes with her characters. Each chapter (alternately written from a different character’s POV) reveals a little more about them, both personality-wise and why they act/interact the way they do. I also liked how Sullivan doesn’t heavy-handedly make one character any more sympathetic/likeable than the others, she lets you decide that for yourself. And boy, I did.

Alice, the Kelleher matriarch, is a nasty, judgmental, emotionally cold woman who has followed her very obviously unwanted path in life merely because she feels, as a devout Catholic, that it is penance for a 50-year-old event that she felt was her fault. Nevermind that being a devout Catholic should also mean treating those around you well, especially family – no, she accepts her penance, but she’s won’t do it quietly! And she seems to enjoy the drama she causes, because she thinks that being family means you get to act however you want and everyone still has to love you (that thinking doesn’t go both ways, however). Ann Marie is the in-law who lives a life of luxury because she married-up with Alice’s son, but now that her kids are out of the house, is bored and decides to start an expensive hobby of decorating dollhouses (with her husband’s money) and developing a crush on her neighbor. Meanwhile, she is just SO disappointed in her children, one can’t seem to keep a job (her babying had nothing to do with that, of course) and the other is, gasp, GAY! Oh, and she waits on Alice hand-in-foot, in what appears at first to be a martyr-like fashion, but it’s eventually revealed (most surprisingly, to herself), that her main goal has always been to be the one that Alice leaves the beach house to – because she deserves it the most. Kathleen is one of Alice’s three children, a recovering alcoholic who has since gotten her life together, found true love with a new man and moved to the west coast with him to start a worm-compost business. She is genuinely happy and comfortable in her new skin, but in her family’s eyes, she’s still the same person she was 20 years ago, and they treat her as such. All it takes is one day in their presence to somehow revert her back to the walking-disaster that she once was, so understandably, she avoids them at all costs. Maggie is Kathleen’s daughter, a two-dimensional, annoyingly pleasant person who manages to purposefully get herself pregnant by a guy who couldn’t make it any more obvious that he’s just not that into her. She decides to keep the baby, go spend the summer at the beach house with Alice and Ann Marie (somehow getting along with everyone while also flirting with Alice’s buddy the hot young priest), and therefore gets her mother, Kathleen back in the fray since she feels she has to travel to Maine to talk some sense into her daughter.

So obviously putting these four women in the same house produces some serious tension and brings old issues/grudges to the surface. As you can probably tell, I related most to Kathleen, because of her stigma as “the black sheep,” despite doing the best she could. And I did find myself liking Maggie more by the end, probably because she’s my age and it’s hard to actually dislike such a genuinely nice person. Alice I mostly felt bad for, since she had lived her whole life with such bitterness, prejudice and un-enlightenment. Ann Marie I despised. Her sense of entitlement and shady, self-serving manipulations reminded me too closely of people in my life that I’ve been unfortunate enough to encounter. She does eventually get what she deserves…well at least she gets knocked down a few pegs, which is satisfying enough. In the end, the reader has a better understanding of these women, but I can’t say that they have any better understanding of each other. Everyone goes their separate ways and nothing major is resolved…which is fine, and true to life. A very engrossing read – you really get invested in the characters and their stories, even if you dislike them. 4 STARS

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The Red House, by Mark Haddon, was my original first pick, because I had enjoyed Haddon’s earlier book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Book jacket snippet:

…Richard, a wealthy doctor, invites his estranged sister Angela and her family to join his for a week at a vacation home in the English countryside. Richard has just re-married and inherited a willful stepdaughter in the process; Angela has a feckless husband and three children who sometimes seem alien to her. The stage is set for seven days of resentment and guilt, a staple of family gatherings the world over…As we come to know each character they become profoundly real to us. We understand them, even as we come to realize they will never fully understand each other, which is the tragicomedy of every family.

Maybe I would have liked this book more if I hadn’t read the dysfunctional-masterpiece that was Maine first. It was too similar in the method of alternating POVs, but drastically different in character development. The characters in Red House were SO extreme in their personalities/actions that you felt you were being hit over the head with it: THIS person is good, THIS one is bad, THIS is the reason they act this way, THIS is how you should feel about them. Certain characters had absolutely NO redeeming qualities, like Angela’s husband and Richard’s step-daughter, that they didn’t even seem real – even when Haddon attempted to put them in a sympathetic light. I don’t mind developing an understanding of a unlikeable character (as with Alice and Ann Marie above), but when this humanizing appears in a two-second scene where they simply think “hmmm, maybe I was wrong…oh well” but then continue to act in the same way, I just lose interest in them (as I would in real-life). And then there was a random supernatural element to the story in the form of Angela’s stillborn daughter who would have turned 18 that day, but instead her “ghost” (in Alice’s deteriorating mind?) is creeping around the house at night. As weird as that side-story was, it was actually the most interesting and could have probably done well as its own book. Amidst the multi-storyline chatter of Red House, it fades into the background until it’s suddenly and inexplicably the most important storyline (THIS is the climactic scene). Again, nothing is resolved in the end, which just makes you feel like you wasted your time in this house with this family, as opposed to feeling like the non-solution is the solution in Maine.

Add to that the completely faultless fact that the book had so many Britishisms (something I don’t remember from Curious Incident) that it actually distracted me from the story at times. That’s really just a stylistic complaint, and probably wouldn’t bother other readers. I would much more readily recommend The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for readers interested in Haddon. 2 STARS

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Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, was a good transition back to a single POV with a storyline more complex than insert dysfunctional family here and watch the fireworks. Book jacket snippet:

1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

First of all, and this is not a spoiler: The “mysterious illness” that kills Finn is AIDS. It’s only mysterious because the book is set in the 80’s when people thought you could contract it from a kiss on the cheek. I think the author/editor/publisher chose to keep it mysterious so readers wouldn’t immediately dismiss this as “an AIDS book,” which it really isn’t. While Finn’s death is a major part of the book, the real focus is on the time of June’s life spent with her uncle before his death and the subsequent relationship she forms with his “friend” Toby after it. Brunt’s writing style is superb, almost magical, and the way she reveals little details and big revelations is masterful. Tell the Wolves is so relateable, profound and touching that you will want to keep nearby both a notebook to jot passages down and a full box of tissues to cry into.

I originally checked out this book not knowing that it had much to do with family dysfunction, but the side-story of the  strained relationship between June and her older sister, Greta, hit a little too close to home for me. Greta was also affected by her uncle’s death, not because she was close with him, but that she is disappointed that his death didn’t send June running back to her. And it’s no wonder that June doesn’t. Greta is nasty, calculating and very good at attacking June with choice words for maximum damage. She has her own popular social life at school, but still takes time out of her busy schedule to spy on June, destroy her things, try to get her in trouble and essentially mentally and verbally abuse her as much as possible. As the book goes on, it’s slowly revealed that Greta is really just “crying out for help,” that she really “just wants their sisterly relationship back.” And by the end of the book, they have reached a miraculous understanding (after a serious of nasty and nastier acts by Greta).

Uh-uh. I’m sorry, but NO. Do not pass go, Greta. I do not condone people acting like self-serving assholes, only to say “oh gee, I didn’t really mean it…let’s just say it’s BOTH of our faults!” And I know we’re talking about teenage girls here, but when behavior like this is unchecked all through childhood/teenagehood, those same shitty kids grow up to be shitty adults. They have no concept of how to successfully interact/communicate with others and end up leaving a trail of destroyed relationships in their wake (usually without ever realizing that THEY are the problem). The parents in Tell the Wolves are absent during the story, mostly because they’re both accountants and it’s tax season…but I have a suspicion that they weren’t too involved to begin with. At the end, the mother makes some vague proclamation that they all need to start spending more time together as a family, but the reader never knows if that actually happens, or how. The unbelievable, tidy little resolve only occurs between the sisters because June is a genuinely forgiving person who truly learns by the end of the book what it takes to love another person (because Greta certainly doesn’t). If nothing else, this book gave me hope that someone like June could prosper and have successful relationships of her own despite the negative influence of someone like Greta in her life. So the tidiness of the ending was my ONE complaint about the whole book. I actually need to buy this book for my home library, stat – it’s THAT good. 5+ STARS

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