Category Archives: Families-Fiction

Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce (Penguin)

Small MerciesI loved this family story, a first novel that’s full of life and characters that live beyond the page. It starts off slowly, building the reader’s relationship with the Amendola family, especially Gail, the Irish girl from Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood, who married into an Italian Staten Island family and learned to live with the rules of the culture she adopted, for  better or worse.

The novel takes place over the course of one week, but with a generous use of flashbacks we learn all about the Amendolas, what they think and feel. Wife Gail and her retired firefighter husband Michael had 3 sons, but the youngest, Robert, also a firefighter, was killed on 9/11. It’s now 10 years later, but the family is still reeling from the loss as they prepare for the birthday celebration of their grandson Bobby, Jr., this small son of their own youngest son, who has never known his father.

I always hope that the first pages of a novel will  tell me something wonderful about what to expect in the way of the writing. Each chapter in Small Mercies is told from the point of view of a family member, and on the second page, in a chapter told from Gail’s perspective, I found the nugget that let me know that I was in the hands of a great storyteller. Gail’s on her way out: “A quick look in the mirror. Not for vanity, not anymore, but for its older sister: dignity.” Brilliant. Joyce has something to say and says it well.

The Amendolas are part of a close-knit culture of Italians and Irish in Staten Island; what one character calls “the servants’ quarters of the city.” They share the neighborhood rituals and enthusiasms: liquor and sports anchor this community. There is some chafing at expectations: oldest son Peter couldn’t wait to get out and as a teenager rode the ferry to Manhattan to remind himself of where he wanted to be. But even as a successful lawyer, with a WASP wife, he’s unable to shake the feeling he’ll never fit in. Middle son Franky never recovered from the death of his younger brother and turned to alcohol to anesthetize his grief. Bobby’s widow, Tina, still tied closely to the Amendolas, wonders if 10 years is long enough to be a single mother as she starts to date. Gail and Michael have their own issues to work out and there’s reference to the ways they pleased and disappointed their own parents.

Joyce brings us into the thoughts of these characters and some terrific minor folks as well. He clearly loves them all. I enjoyed the structure, which allows him to introduce depth and reveal backstory. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a single character, but these alternate with Gail’s chapters, always coming back to her experiences and point of view. As the reader moves through the novel, hearing each characters’ thoughts, the characters become more rounded, more alive, and the story becomes more emotional and revealing. It’s an example of how domestic fiction, in the hands of a good writer, can be completely absorbing.

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The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Turner HouseThis is a terrific family story, combining compelling characters and social history.  Flournoy does a great job of creating fully rounded characters–even the siblings that appear only briefly are real people. I suspect (and hope) she has more stories about the Turners  that didn’t make it into the novel.

The Turner family has lived on Yarrow St. in Detroit for over 50 years. Francis and Viola raised 13 children there and witnessed the precipitous decline of the city’s East Side. Widowed and elderly, Viola is now in danger of losing the house, which is worth less than the mortgage payments. Her children and grandchildren have strong–and different–feelings about whether the house should be saved.

From the oldest–Cha-Cha–to the youngest–Lelah–everyone weighs in with an opinion or a plan, depending on what the house means to them. Cha-Cha feels responsible for making decisions and providing for his mother; he irritates his younger siblings with his need for control. Lelah, the youngest, is secretly living in the old house; she fears that her brothers and sisters will learn about her gambling addiction. Troy, a policeman, has a scheme to make money by selling the house illegally. Turner focuses on these and several other siblings but we get a terrific sense the family dynamics. With all these stories and family collisions, there’s also a subplot about a “haint” that appeared to Francis and now Cha-Cha. The meaning of the “haint” is unclear to Cha-Cha, and he worries that it’s providing a message that he needs to understand. Turner cleverly doesn’t let the “haint”  turns the novel into a ghost story, but uses it as a device to reveal some of the dark undercurrents in the family’s history.

Flournoy’s descriptions of the Turner family dynamics and the house that holds them together is filled with the family dynamics we all know; it’s a universal story of how we love and struggle with our parents and siblings.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown)

God in RuinsI was fortunate to get permission to download a copy of Kate Atkinson’s terrific forthcoming novel, A God in Ruins. I  began reading it immediately, ready for a treat. This new novel focuses on Teddy, a minor character from her previous novel, Life After Life; Atkinson calls this one a “companion piece” rather than a sequel. I read it over the course of 3 days, and now I’m sorry I’m finished; I should have made it last longer.

Teddy Todd is the younger brother of Ursula, the main character from Life After Life. The central event in Teddy’s life is his World War II service as an RAF bomber pilot. During the War, he was never sure if he’d return, if there would be an “after;,” his survival makes him determined to be kind and enjoy the life he’s been given after he’s been responsible for so much death. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Nancy; they have one child, Viola, and two grandchildren. Life isn’t always easy, but he takes it as it comes, reveling in the English countryside, doing his best to love the difficult people around him. This is the bare bones on which Atkinson hangs her absorbing story of how four generations deal with what life sent them.

Atkinson plays with time, deconstructing the narrative in many ways: by mixing up time periods in each chapter, by casually dropping information about the future, by repeating events from a different character’s point of view, and by foreshadowing. One event calls up another, filling in details, adding roundness and resonance to characters and events. Teddy’s grandson, exploring in the attic finds Teddy’s war medals and keepsakes. These objects return in later chapters when we learn more about Teddy’s war experiences; because we’ve already thought about the objects when Sunny found them, their meaning is more emotional and faceted.

Ursula makes tantalizing cameo appearances in this novel; she’s Teddy’s beloved sister, offering advice and support. For those of us who read Life After Life, when we hear about her death, we’re startled–didn’t she keep on living? Other characters, like Teddy’s cranky daughter Viola and her children Sunny and Bertie, step off the page, full of life and longing, shaped by the times they live in but very much their own people.

The novel is filled with wonderful humor. Teddy’s daughter, Viola, pushes him from his house to “independent living” then to a “care home.” In his nineties, Teddy reflects that “living in captivity” has “clearly prolonged his life.” The chapter describing Viola’s visit to Teddy in the care home is hilarious and sad, a perceptive set piece on how we treat the elderly.

The sections set during the war, especially Teddy’s experiences as a pilot and wing commander are painfully vivid, capturing Teddy’s inchoate fears, his relationship with his crew, and the emotions he feels as he sees the destruction they’ve brought down on German cities.  These sections fill out Teddy’s character in a most rewarding way.

Atkinson has complete control over her narrative and characters;  it’s such a pleasure to surrender to her stories. I’ve read all of Atkinson’s novels, starting with Behind the Scenes at the Museum; sorry I can’t read them again for the first time.

 

 

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (Penguin, 2006)

We MulvaneysI’m late reading this; started listening to it years ago and never got very far.  I find that the unrelenting grimness of Oates’s novels often puts me off; I have to be in the mood. I’m about 75% through We Were the Mulvaneys and starting to worry about how it will all end–not well, I’m sure for the Mulvaneys, who have already lost so much. I’ll read to the end, but I’m hoping that there will be redemption for at least some of the characters.

Oates has such command of her material; she’s knows exactly where she’s taking us. She sets the scene beautifully at the beginning of this novel–we understand exactly the status and the role of the Mulvaneys–and their charismatic appeal– in their small town  in upstate New York,  classic Oates territory. As the story progresses, the personalities and proclivities of the characters propel the story.

Corinne and Michael Mulvaney are living a happy life at High Point Farm with four children and assorted dogs, cats, and farm animals. The eldest son, Mike Jr, known as “Mule” Mulvaney from his days as a football star at the local high school, now works with Dad at Mulvaney Roofing. Second son Patrick, “Pinch,” is the straight-A student; he’s serious and aloof. Beautiful, popular, innocent cheerleader daughter Marianne–Button–joins her mother at church, while Judd, the baby of the family, tells the story of what happened that year when life changed for the storybook Mulvaneys.

The problems begin when Marianne goes to the Valentine’s Day Prom with a nice local boy, but comes home the following morning bruised and with a bloody dress. The unthinkable has happened and the Mulvaneys are unprepared. Mike, Sr. sees Marianne as a symbol of his inability to keep his family safe and he can’t look at her, reminded as he is by his own failings. Marianne feels culpable and debased. Other family members react in their own ways and the fortunes of the Mulvaneys spiral down, their lives out of control and they’re unable to help each other. Oates tells the story of the following twenty-five years in the lives of the Mulvaney parents and children as they search for grace and forgiveness.

If you like We Were the Mulvaneys, try Oates’s Little Bird of Heavenone of my favorites of her novels.

Man Alive! by Mary Kay Zuravleff

Man AliveI picked up this novel because of excellent reviews in various places (Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Kirkus) and was happily surprised. I’m always hoping that a good–especially a starred–review will translate into a novel I love, but it doesn’t always happen. Zuravleff has a great, zingy writing style which is fun to read.

Man Alive! (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is a “domestic novel” which is a genre alive and well  and lately seems filled with stories of missing/kidnapped children or family secrets. Sigh. I’m tired of those plots. Man Alive! instead deals with a family literally struck by lightning and trying to recover its balance.  Dad Owen Lerner receives the blow as he puts coins into a parking meter on a blustery day; his physical and mental injuries strike deep into the heart of his family’s equilibrium. Wife Toni, college-age twins Will and Ricky, and teenage daughter Brooke find their lives spiraling away from the familiar patterns. And Owen’s not so sure that “recovery” means that he’ll be the same as before.  He develops a strange obsession with grilling meat and has less enthusiasm for his pediatric psychology career in the aftermath of his life-changing event.

In this lovely domestic novel, Zuravleff uses a family crisis to create real life on the page, characters that live and struggle in ways that are familiar to us, even if we haven’t experienced a bolt of lightning. It’s the finding of the universal in the domestic that works so well. Here’s one quote–a thought from Toni about raising three children: “With the kids, she tried to position herself midway between the poles of hovering and neglect, though it sometimes felt as if she were simply running to one pole, tagging it, and then running to the other.”  Nicely done.

Some other domestic novels that ring true, tell us something about ourselves that we maybe weren’t able to put into words:

The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen (Riverhead)
When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (Bloomsbury)
A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin Books)
Cost by Roxana Robinson (Picador)

The Year We Left Home

I was having lunch with my cousin Jane last week and we were talking about the kinds of books we like to read and we both agreed that we don’t need closure in a novel, that in fact, we prefer ambiguous endings. Life goes on and there’s rarely closure and it’s satisfying to find those qualities in a novel. I think that’s why for me, reading mysteries is like eating candy (not a good habit). When you’re done reading (or chewing), the thrill is gone and you need another one to stoke your addiction.

My most recent favorite novel with an ambiguous ending is The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson, coming out in May. Thompson follows a Midwestern family for 30 years, particularly the children who come of age in the early 1970s. Thompson’s descriptions of people and situations are fabulous: a disliked brother-in-law is “an undigested lump” in the family. The chapters are like punchy short stories, filled with character, incident, and the economic and social changes that reverberated in the lives of farming families in the Midwest.

Nothing in these characters’ lives can be predicted, but everything feels just right. At the end, there’s sadness, redemption, and some new beginnings, leaving us with lives we recognize as our own.

Property Values

Rose Tremain’s 2010 novel Trespass is a dark story about two pairs of brothers and sisters with convoluted relationships and how property further entangles them in old quarrels and sorrows, with disastrous results. It’s also a tale of outsiders and insiders, as is often the case with novels set in France. (If you haven’t read Diane Johnson’s elegant, satirical novels Le Mariage, Le Divorce, and L’Affaire, now would be a good time.)

Trespass opens when a young girl, wandering away from a class trip, discovers a crime; Tremain uses this event to tell story of the roiling emotions that have led to this point. Anthony Verey, once a wealthy, celebrated British antiques dealer, decides that living near his cherished sister Veronica will cure his depression and give him a fresh start. Veronica lives in Provence with her lover, Kitty, who hates Anthony. He sets off to find the perfect house, one that will be an elegant setting for his “beloveds,” a few perfect treasures from his shop. Anthony’s quest made me think of David Sedaris’s comment about “the rejuvenating power of real estate.” (It appears in  Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.) But lest you think that there’s humor in Tremain’s book, I’ll remind you right away that this is a dark story, filled with the awful baggage the characters bring from childhood.

Anthony is enchanted by Mas Lunel, an old stone house owned by Aramon Lunel, a dissipated, alcoholic wretch, who has relegated his sister Audrun to a makeshift cottage on the edge of the property. The rifts in their relationship are seismic and Mas Lunel looms as a symbol of all that went wrong. Anthony’s   narcissistic interest in Mas Lunel as a canvas for his life sets in motion a chain of events with fatal consequences.

This bare outline of the story doesn’t reveal that how Tremain’s damaged characters come alive on the page, with all their hopes and sorrows. I read an earlier novel, The Way I Found Her, several years ago and always meant to read more of her novels. Now I will.

Below I’ve put together a short list of novels and memoirs about houses and how they affect family relationships. It’s a common dream that the place we live will change our lives. Anyone who reads the articles in the Sunday NY Times Real Estate section sees that weekly.

Novels:
Barker, Pat. Another World
Forster, E.M. Howard’s End
Lively, Penelope. Family Album
Mawer, Simon. The Glass Room
Memoirs:
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Boylan, Jennifer Finney. I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted
Fiennes, William. The Music Room: A Memoir