I tend not to read novels centered on “family”, dysfunctional or otherwise: family gatherings of one sort or another. These novels (and films for that matter) seem to have a limited scope, a sameness. After all, there is only so much to say about the social structure called family, despite the fact that each one is unique. There can be no great new revelations. So the burden of novels of this genre is to offer up an interesting group of people – a collection of character studies. This does not require any special lyricism from the author, any great insight into the way the world works. What it does require is a talent for clear presentation, and the more characters the reader needs to understand, the clearer the presentation needs to be. Then the author should be an acute observer of human nature: the quirks, the motivations, the myriad possibilities of the human animal. The genre I’m referring to is not fantasy based. Characters must be believable. From what the author tells us, would that characters do this. A litmus test of sorts.
Joshua Henkin mostly succeeds on all counts.
It’s the July 4th weekend of 2005 and the far-flung family is gathering for a memorial service to remember the life of journalist Leo Frankel. Leo, the youngest of four children (three sisters) had been killed a year earlier in Iraq after having been kidnapped. First, a Prologue which sets up the gathering as we meet the parents. Then we are introduced to the core perspectives of the three sisters and Leo’s widow in 15 well balanced chapters. These chapters provide very fine character studies of the four, and their relationship to each other over the years: the current state of their lives and the challenges facing each of them. Through the anchor of that core group, we also get different perspectives of each of them. A secondary group (spouses, parents, grandparents, children) add to our understanding of these four. They don’t live in a vacuum, of course. Each of them are interesting in their own way and each of tem are dealing with those ‘life events’ and challenges which ultimately shape us all.
One of the techniques which, as a reader who sometimes has difficulty keeping names straight was how Henkin kept repeating the basic information as he initially moved the point of view from one character to the next. This may sound redundant, but it’s not, since the information is coming from a different source.
CLARISSA: Clarissa, the eldest daughter is 39 years old, lives in Brooklyn, and works for a non-profit International relief agency. Growing up she was something of a child prodigy on the cello, but eventually gave it up. Lately though, she has taken it up again. She’s happily married to Nathaniel, a successful neuroscientist at Columbia who is on a fast track to receive a Nobel prize in his field. But she had just never wanted kids. The burden of child rearing had fallen to her as a child, so she wanted her own life. Now though, both she and her husband have been trying to conceive since the death of Leo. She fears she may ironically, be infertile. Nathaniel doesn’t recognize this new Clarissa, which is putting a strain on their marriage.
LILY: A couple of years younger than Clarissa, Lily is my favorite sister. She’s a whip smart lawyer who clerked on the Supreme Court after law school for Scalia, an independent minded, clear-eyed realist who lives in DC with her chef husband, Malcolm. Malcolm is working to open his own DC restaurant, and is close to getting the backing. They have a long term relationship, a good one, but have never married, nor had a desire to have children.
NOELLE: Noelle presented some problems for me. She’s the third youngest sister (Leo was the baby) and it seems was quite a handful as a child. Provocative and sexually active at a young age, she’s now an Orthodox Jew living on the West Bank with her four young boys aged 8 to 5, and married to a real loser of a husband (Amram Glucksman) who just can’t seem to hold a job before his temper gets him fired. He’s an authoritarian asshole, who over compensates for his deep-seated inferiority complex by being an argumentative jerk. Whar she wonders, happened to the “sweet and anxious” boy she met at 27 and later married?
He’s immersed beneath layers, covered in the sediment of what he has become, the sweetness eclipsed by something else, the anxiety redirected into bullying.
In the same vein, Noelle can come across as disdainful – a result of the imaginary competition she holds with her mother. Noelle works part-time as a teacher’s aide. I just could never get fully invested in her. Character growth is demonstrating the getting from A to B, right? That is the weak kink here.
THISBE: The widow of Leo, she lives in northern California with her three-year old son by Leo, Calder. She’s a Berkley grad student in Anthropology who always felt herself the outsider in the Frankel family. There are hints that all may not have been well in their marriage, and she now has a new man (Wyeth) in her life that she just may be moving in with. This is a secret she has shared with no one except Lily.
The parents (Marilyn and David Frankel, both 69) have a secret of their own: After 42-years of marriage, Marilyn wants a trial separation (David does not). It’s never clear just why this has occurred, but presumably it’s because of their very different reactions to Leo’s death. Marilyn believes that
because he’s been trying to make the best of an unspeakable situation, she hasn’t been able to abide him. Is that why she’s leaving him?
Marilyn is a doctor and David is a retired High school English teacher. They live in a Manhattan apartment and own a summer homeouse in the Berkshires (Lenox) that all of the children have grown up in. Their situation, revealed, over the course of these three days, the other revelations as well as the high drama of the volatile Noelle-Amram marriage, gives the weekend an end of an era feel.
One other character I should mention, is the family matriarch, Gretchen. Thrice married and widowed by successively richer CEO’s, she’s the dispenser of large checks and imperial advice:
“I know something about integrity, and I know something about love. And I know something about loyalty, which is the most important quality of all.”
There’s a lot of drama packed into this three-day holiday weekend: a lot of confessionals and many revelations. Yet (for the most part) it never seems “too much”, never seems forced, always seems believable. After quickly getting a take on the big four, there are surprises, but we are never surprised.The characacters meet things the way we’d expect them to. In other words, Henkin’s characters are consistent unto themselves, which should be much appreciated. Will you recognize your own family members here? Maybe yes, and maybe no. There are no universal truths about families embedded here. All families have their own unique dynamic. But, in this novel at least, you can always recognize them as ‘real’ people. As a reader, you can’t ask for much more than that.
To be publisher June 19th by Knopf Doubleday