Small Hours from Jennifer Kitses examines 24 hours difficult hours in the life of a family of four. The novel argues that with both parents working, juggling job demands, conflicting schedules, no support network and the high cost of child care, it’s inevitable that internal tensions and external pressures make daily life an obstacle course to be overcome, repeatedly,
Helen and Tom were New Yorkers who decided to move to Devon, a small town that seemed to promise the sort of life they wanted. Devon, “an exurb,” is “in the Hudson Valley, but farther out than most commuters were willing to manage–ninety five minutes to Grand Central.” Add that up, and it’s more than a three hour commute daily for this pair.
Helen was the one who iniatated the idea to move to Devon, and at first the town seemed idyllic and affordable:
On their first trip out here, he’d browsed in the used bookstore; Helen wandered along the little street of art galleries. There was a dive bar, a nice bar, and a vegetarian restaurant. Even the stores that sold bespoke denim and artisanal fennel products had seemed like a good sign.
The reality is far different. Now two years later, in the economic downturn, many businesses in town have closed, and both Helen and Tom’s NY jobs were impacted. Helen who was a full-time graphic designer is now working “on contract and off-site, for a lot less money.” Tom lost his job, and after being unemployed for a few months he now works for a newswire service.
Tom and Helen managed to hang onto their home. Barely. Their home is still underwater, and Tom realizes that they’re a pay check away from this house of cards tumbling. Meanwhile Helen, who’s been putting the preschool fees for their three-year old twins onto a series of credit cards, is desperately avoiding the school administration as she can no longer pay the fees. Of course, this cannot continue; something is going to happen, and over the course of 24 hours, Tom and Helen each face a crisis.
We follow both characters over the course of a day: Tom, whose job isn’t exactly secure, begs off some time to take care of some personal business. I won’t say what that is, but I will say that Tom made a horrible mistake some time before and now he has to either ‘put up or shut up’ as the saying goes. Tom’s crisis is very concrete: a horrible moral dilemma and a situation which is going to cause a lot of unhappiness before it’s resolved.
Helen’s crisis, on the other hand, is much more existential. She doesn’t have questions about her marriage, but she does have questions about her entire life. While she loves her children, she’s not exactly enamored with the role of motherhood. She works from home, and this conflicts with the needs of her children. At one point, she plops the twins in front of the television in order to work and carries on. Helen as a character is the more problematic of the two. She seems to be more of a neurotic mess than anything else, although I can accept that the family’s situation may partially have driven her to that point. She is very unhappy: she hates the town she insisted that they move to, she hates most of the neighbours…. There’s no easy fix here.
Helen and Tom, as created, are two individuals who happen to share the same house. After reading the book, I wondered why these two were married to each other as they haven’t so much grown apart as become emotionally distant roomies. Tom and Helen are in their 40s, and their lives are depicted as joyless drudgery. If this is a fair depiction (and I suspect it may be) then Small Hours is a commentary on the sad empty lives of America’s middle class young families who struggle from day-to-day like frantic hamsters on activity wheels that go nowhere.
Small Hours is being compared to the works of Richard Russo and Tom Perrotta and while I understand such comparisons are helpful when trying to attract an audience to a debut novel, such comparisons can also backfire and not be much a favour to a new author who should be appreciated on their own terms.
For animal lovers: I immediately disliked Helen for firing a water gun at squirrels for entertainment, and later a lost dog in the neighbourhood meets a sad fate. Yes a spoiler, but some readers, including me, want to know about situations involving animals. The neglect, actual and possibly symbolic, of the dog was just another contributing factor which made me ask: what the hell is wrong with these people???