Tag Archives: family politics

Family Trust: Kathy Wang

At 74 Stanley Huang is active, dapper and a picture of good health. Back in San Jose from his latest all-inclusive Mediterranean cruise, Stanley is very proud that he has actually lost weight in spite of loading himself with unlimited desserts. But then Stanley begins to have a nagging doubt about weight loss after “twelve days of gastronomic Bacchanalia over international waters. “ A trip to the doctor eventually leads to a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Family trustStanley’s illness is the starting point for this story which explores fractured family dynamics in the face of a terminal diagnosis. Stanley has a much younger second wife, Mary Zhu (ex-waitress/massage therapist ) a still pissed-off first wife, Linda and children Fred and Kate. A huge question looms over the family. Does Stanley have any money and who will inherit it?

Stanley’s ex-wife, Linda isn’t particularly concerned about Stanley’s diagnosis. She’s “annoyed” by the “revisionist history her children had indulged in ever since Stanley’s diagnosis.” She’s far more concerned with the financial aspect of things. To Linda, Stanley never came through with his promises, and was “lazy and incompetent,” plus terminally unfaithful while she slaved to earn the money for the family.

Even thirtysomething years later, when she’d finally located her courage, had gone and left him, told him that they were going to divorce, leaving him openmouthed and speechless, helplessly steaming in his armchair-even then, he’d managed to come out ahead. Stanley had recovered quickly enough from his brief period of depression, sighing up for a series of elite gym memberships a month after he’d moved out, rebounding shortly after with a sequence of increasingly younger girlfriends. A series of events he’d then capped off by getting remarried with undignified speed. A marriage he couldn’t help but publicize by braying to everyone how happy he was, making it appear as if he was the one who’d left her. Because she was still alone, of course. 

Unbeknownst to her children, Linda was the real breadwinner of the family and gave Stanley a generous divorce settlement when his philandering became too much for her to tolerate. Stanley’s assurances of a large inheritance and a family trust do nothing to assuage Linda’s concerns that her feckless ex will prove true to his character—even in his last months. Plus then there’s the second wife who, in spite of her enthusiastic efforts to find miracle cures for her much-older husband, seems almost delighted to hasten him into the grave. Will she get the money or will Stanley leave it all to his children as promised? Here’s Linda taking charge at a dreaded family meeting:

She clicked the pen impatiently. “I want to write the numbers down, so that there’s no confusion. It should be very simple. First you determine your net worth. Then you define a token–that means small, Stanley–amount you give to Mary. Everything else goes to the children.”

“I have to take care of Mary,” Stanley said. “I am everything to her.” 

Both of Stanley’s children have considerable problems of their own. Harvard Business School graduate Fred has never made good on his early promise. Former classmates have soared into the company of the 1% but Fred, divorced by his dissatisfied wife, lingers in his profession’s “swampy bottom.” He’s dating Saks saleswoman, Hungarian immigrant Erika. Part of his attraction to Erika is her avarice, but it’s naive avarice. In other words, given his job title and income (over 300K a year) he can snow Erika into thinking he’s far more affluent than he really is.

Stanley’s daughter Kate is struggling with some serious personal problems. She is the sole breadwinner while her husband, Denny, hides out with “the majority of his daylight hours unaccounted for, lazing about in a cozily furnished attic” supposedly gathering investors for his start-up which has yet to materialize.

Linda, Stanley’s ex, has always been the sensible one when it comes to money, and yet, she begins to plunge into the murky waters of internet dating after a conversation with ‘friend’ Shirley, a woman Linda dislikes:

She’d undertaken a through redecoration of both herself and her house after her husband,  Alfred, had passed, and each now reflected the Versailles-lite sensibilities of a provincial government official.

This is a tale of Chinese Americans whose lives are driven by status markers. Given the subject matter, death in the face of a terminal diagnosis, it’s bold indeed for this first time author to take a spiky humorous approach. We follow Linda, Fred and Kate’s lives as Stanley’s diagnosis becomes all too real. He grows frailer and frailer while the question of money grows stronger. And as we all know, people are at their worst when money enters the picture.

The back stories of each character were overly detailed and I wanted the story to propel forwards–not backwards, but the moments between the family members were perfect. Here’s Mary Zhu, elevated to nurse status:

“Last week they brought in a special tree bark I ordered; it had to be sent from Hong Kong. I’ve been brewing it into a tea for Stanley. It’s supposed to be very powerful against cancer. For many people, it is a near-instant cure.” She prattled on, detailing all the various acupuncturist, healers, and meditation gurus whose skills were being summoned. Next to her, Stanley preened, lapping it up.

Linda decided she’d had enough. “Please inform your wife that I am a full supporter of Western medicine,” she said to Stanley in English. To her left she heard Kate sigh. But she didn’t care. Lunch was over. 

The novel has a lot of energy, and the author clearly has a complex story to tell. I am fascinated by inheritance plots, and if you are too, then you will enjoy this novel that takes a irreverent, humorous look at the question of assets that may or may exist and may or may not be passed to the next generation My attraction to inheritance stories may be a Balzac thing, and/or it may be the fact that I have seen many inheritance scenarios go horribly wrong.

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Us by David Nicholls

Regular readers of this blog are aware of my fascination with books set against the backdrop of holidays. There are, of course, reasons for this. People cast adrift from their usual surroundings will sometimes test the boundaries of their behaviour–in other words, they behave in ways they wouldn’t at home, and that can make for an interesting story. But there’s another facet to holiday books I enjoy–if you send a family with problems away on holiday together, chances are the pressures of a confined space and 24/7 intimacy will make the cracks in the family relationships blow wide open, and this is the scenario in the engaging novel Us from British author David Nicholls.

UsDouglas Petersen and his wife Connie have been married for almost 3 decades when she announces, without warning, that the “marriage has run its course” and that she “think[s] she wants to leave him.” 54-year-old Douglas, the narrator of the novel, is stunned at the news. He’d thought that the marriage was happy, but with their only son, Albie, about to leave for a three-year photography course, Connie argues that their son is the reason why they’re together.

“I try to imagine it, us alone here every evening without Albie. Because he’s maddening, I know, but he’s the reason why we’re here, still together…”

Was he the reason? The only reason?

“…and I’m terrified by the idea of him leaving home, Douglas.

I’m terrified by the thought of that … hole.”

What was the hole? Was I the hole?

“Why should there be a hole? There won’t be a hole.”

“Just the two of us, rattling around in this house …”

“We won’t rattle around! We’ll do things. We’ll be busy, we’ll work, we’ll do things together–we’ll, we’ll fill the hole.”

“I need a new start, some kind of change of scene.”

“You want to move house? We’ll move house.”

“It’s not about the house. It’s the idea of you and me in each other’s pockets forever more. It’s like … a Beckett play.”

I’d not seen a Beckett play, but presumed this was  a bad thing. “Is it really so … horrific to you, Connie, the thought of you and I being alone together? because I thought we had a good marriage…”

I loved that quote because it reveals so much about the marriage and the dynamics between Connie and Douglas. He’s the product of a very reserved conservative, undemonstrative home, while Connie grew up in a large noisy, supportive family. These two people are completely unalike, but their marriage worked–at least for a while, but there’s always been the sense–agreed upon by both spouses–that Douglas was ‘lucky’ to get someone like Connie. The quote also reveals that Connie is the power figure in the marriage; she calls the shots and Douglas scrambles to catch up. Not only has she declared that she thinks she wants to end the marriage, but she fully expects Douglas to participate, without any awkwardness and no demands, in the last family holiday before Albie leaves home. Given Albie’s interest in Art (Connie is a failed painter and now works in a museum), Connie has organized what she calls the modern equivalent of the Grand Tour to “prepare” Albie “for the adult world, like in the eighteenth century.”  This month-long holiday includes stops in Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Padua, Verona, Florence and Rome.

Douglas’s first reaction to the news that Connie wants a separation is to cancel the holiday which he predicts will be like a “funeral cortege” with the imminent separation “hanging over” the marriage. Connie argues that it will “be fun,” and that Douglas should not be “melodramatic.” Albie isn’t thrilled by the holiday either and argues that “if it’s meant to be a great rite of passage and you’re both there, doesn’t that sort of defeat the object?”

Of course there were further sleepless nights, further tears and accusations in the lead-up to the trip, but I had no time for a nervous breakdown. Also, Albie was completing his ‘studies’ in art and photography, returning exhausted from screen-painting or glazing a jug, and so we were discreet, walking our dog, an ageing, flatulent Labrador called Mr Jones, some distance away from the house and hissing over his head in fields.

Common sense should tell these people to cancel the trip, but as you probably guessed, the Holiday from Hell begins…

The story goes back and forth in time with scenes of this miserable holiday contrasted with the history of Connie and Douglas’s life together. We see how Douglas, a shy man, almost 30 and a responsible scientist with no social life met Connie through Douglas’s wild and uninhibited sister, Karen. The fact that Karen (“Love was Karen’s alibi for all kinds of aggravating behaviour,“) can’t cook doesn’t stop her from throwing parties which include vile tuna casseroles, and it’s at one of these parties that Douglas meets Connie. We could say that Connie, who’s had a series of unreliable boyfriends in her checkered, exotic past, is out of Douglas’s league. She’s outgoing, drinks like a fish, and is ready to sample all the drugs passed her way–unlike Douglas who has no interest in drugs whatsoever. Douglas is a dud at parties and Karen says that “he had skipped youth and leapt straight into middle age.” The scenes at the party, when somehow Douglas finds himself competing for Connie against an aggressive hairy, circus performer are hilarious.

Jake, the trapeze artist was a man who stared death in the face, while most nights I stared television in the face. And this wasn’t just any circus, it was punk circus, part of the new wave of circus, where chainsaws were juggled and oil drums were set on fire then beaten incessantly. Circus was now sexy; dancing elephants had been replaced by nude contortionists, ultra violence and explained Jake, ‘a kind of anarchic, post-apocalyptic Mad Max aesthetic.’

As the story continues and Douglas relates the history of his marriage and the crises he and Connie faced, we also see how Douglas tries to keep up the pretense of a happy holiday amidst his laminated itineraries and Connie setting the rules about intimacy.

I loved this novel. Nicholls captured the dynamics of a dying marriage–a marriage which met the needs of one spouse while another felt stymied and bored. Nicholls also nails the subtle idea that one person in a family can so often be the low man on the totem pole, and, of course in this case, it’s Douglas. Many scenes underscore the intimacy between Connie and Albie which leave Douglas as an outsider (“Connie took to twisting her finger in the hair at the nape of his neck. They do this, Connie and Albie, grooming each other like primates“), and while Douglas is a conservative individual who lacks an ounce of spontaneity, this is how he was brought up. There’s another scene at a restaurant in which Albie and Connie shut Douglas out entirely and he becomes the butt of some rather malicious humour.

Due to its well-drawn characters who exist on opposite planes of values, Us may be the sort of novel to polarize readers. I had no sympathy for Connie and thought her a remarkably selfish human being who makes the dramatic announcement that the marriage is over and then expects Douglas to play Happy Families for four weeks for the course of an expensive holiday. Readers may also have a range of reactions to Albie’s behaviour. Douglas has moments of authoritarian fantasies, but there’s never any doubt that Connie is the one firmly in charge of the marriage, and one parent can afford to be lax as long as there’s someone else on the scene who tries to enforce some sort of reasonable behaviour. Nicholls also shows how we marry people knowing what they are, with no illusions, and then we rail at those very characteristics –at one point we learn, for example, that Connie makes snarky comments about Douglas reading nonfiction–“fascism-on-the-march” books as she calls them and not fiction which is her choice. The very characteristics that drew Connie to Douglas–stability, reliability, and security, are elements that Connie then rails against in her 50s.

My sympathy was with Douglas all the way, and for me both Connie and Albie behave atrociously  (Albie insists on taking his guitar on holiday and guess who gets to carry it around). The disastrous Holiday from Hell does have its good points as it becomes the impetus for self-realization for Douglas. Us is a brilliantly clever, witty, insightful examination of power dynamics in a marriage and in a family, but even beyond that Nicholls questions the attributes valued by our society–a society in which experience and risk-taking are valued over restraint. At one point, I was very concerned that Nicholls was leading me down the PC path to cliché, but I was spared… . Us, incidentally, made the longlist for the 2014 Booker prize, and this goes to prove once again, how I prefer the Booker Losers.

Incidentally, I’ve read a few articles recently that delved into the issue of post-50 divorces. One article stated that since the 90s, the divorce rate for people over 50 and older has doubled. I initially thought, to be honest, that that was a little weird. After all, haven’t people worked out their differences by then? I asked a divorce lawyer I know if she was seeing more post-50 divorces and she replied, ‘yes, absolutely.’ I asked why this is on the rise and she said that, in her experience, she’s seeing people who don’t want to live in retirement with the current spouse. She said she has female clients who come home and see the husband sitting on the couch watching TV and they say “I can’t take 20 years more of this.”

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The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins by American author Jami Attenberg is a delightfully light read which still manages to effectively address the very serious issue of overeating. At the heart of the novel is Edie Middlestein, a middle-aged morbidly obese woman, a lawyer for thirty-five years until ‘let go’ by the law firm that employed her.  Edie, a generous woman admired by many, has spent a lifetime overeating, but her problem is now pathological and life-threatening. She indulges in late-night, sneaky solitary eating binges, and diabetic, she’s facing her second operation for an “arterial disease” in her legs. Although “warned” by her doctor, Edie refuses to make any changes. Edie’s two children, Robin and Benny both have different ways of dealing with their mother’s eating disorder, but mostly family members ignore the problem. A crisis occurs in the Middlestein family when Edie’s pharmacist husband, 60-year-old Richard, decides he’s had enough and leaves. Richard and Edie’s two children are stunned at the news–after all “Richard Middlestein had signed up for life with Edie.” Here’s Edie breaking the news to Robin:

“There’s something I need to tell you before we go home,” her mother had said, heavy breath, hulking beneath her fur coat, no flesh visible except for her putty colored face, her drooping chin, her thick-ringed neck. “Your father has left me. He’s had enough.”

“This is a joke,” said Robin.

“This is for real,” said her mother. “He’s flown the coop, and he’s not coming back.”

What a weird way to put it, Robin realized later. As if her father were being held like some house pet, trapped in a cage lined with shit-stained newspaper. Her feelings for her father swerved wildly in that moment. Her mother was tough. The situation was tough. He had taken the coward’s way out, but Robin had never begrudged people their cowardice; it was simply a choice to be made. Still she hated herself for thinking like that. This was her mother, and she was sick, and she needed help. Thrown up against her admittedly fragile moral code, Robin knew that there was an obvious judgment to be made. His decision was despicable. Her train of thought would never be uttered out loud, only the final resolution: Her father would not be forgiven.

Edie’s son, Benny tends to take a more moderate approach  to the impending divorce than his unforgiving sister, Robin. Benny’s wife, Rochelle (“his wife with the nose job,”) is another matter entirely. Rochelle, who’s fiercely into family responsibility, initially believes that the entire family must “work together to get Edie back on track” with Richard doing his part to see that Edie isn’t “sneaking trips to fast-food joints.” But after hearing the news about Richard’s departure, Rochelle follows Edie on an eating binge odyssey over town, and begins to realise the magnitude of the problem. All of Rachelle’s frustration and thwarted vigilance turns to her own home where she overcompensates by introducing exacting diet regimes. She’s rather embarrassed about Richard’s public acknowledgment of the family dirty laundry, and she’s also concerned about the impact on her two children. Taking the dissolution of her in-laws’ marriage quite personally she expects Benny to intervene in the situation.

While Edie continues eating herself to death, Richard who hasn’t had sex for years begins frantically dating via the internet and discovers that there was hundreds of lonely eligible (and some not so eligible) women close to home. Although the novel goes back and forth from the past to the future, most of the novel is concerned with the fallout of Richard’s departure. He leased a condo opposite his pharmacy and secretly furnished it before making the announcement that he was leaving Edie. For his part, Richard argues that he simply can’t take any more.

 “… my wife made me miserable, she picked at me till I bled on a daily basis, so much worse lately, more than you could ever imagine. And she got fat, so fat I could not love her in the same way anymore. Don’t get me wrong. I like a little meat on the bones. I knew what I was marrying. But she was hurting herself. Every day more and more. That is hard on a person. To watch that happen.” he lowered his voice.” And it had been a long time since we’d had marital relations.”

He could not bring himself to explain further that he had imagined that his sex drive would fade away in his late fifties and he would just forget that they had been sleeping on opposite sides of the bed, clinging to their respective corners as if they were holding on to the edge of a cliff. But sixty came. His sex drive still simmered insistently within him, unused but not expired, a fire in the hole. He had never cared before, but now he suddenly realized that he could not go the rest of his life without sex, that he refused to give up the fight.

Food, not surprisingly, has a prominent place in the novel. There are some wonderful descriptions of food, of course; not normal meals–banquets, and it’s through the scenes of family get-togethers and celebrations that the author shows us the tendency to celebrate life with ridiculous amounts of food. We also see the importance of food in the lives of the characters. There’s Edie’s Russian grandfather who, legend has it, made it all the way to America eating potato peel, and then there’s food-obsessed Edie, rewarded and consoled with food in childhood–already chunky at age 5 and “disarmingly solid,” who in middle age and suffering from diabetes, gorges in secret and yet never feels full.

One of the criticisms of the novel is that it skates on the surface and doesn’t deal with the more serious issues. I don’t agree. The novel is written with a light, comic touch which may seem at odds with the subject matter, but somehow, for this reader it worked. The deeper issues are addressed, but after all this is a family, a set of individuals who’ve spent a lifetime ignoring Edie’s eating disorder, so Edie isn’t the only one with the problem here. Author Jami Attenberg shows the emotional difficulties of confronting Edie and also the difficulties of living with someone who appears to be determined to eat their way to death. As Edie’s daughter, Robin says:

“It’s not that I don’t care,” said Robin. “It’s just that I don’t want to know.”

Everyone is very comfortable ignoring Edie’s problem until Richard, the man who actually lives with Edie decides he can’t take it anymore, and it’s at that point that all hell breaks loose. The novel asks a difficult question: how do you stop someone who is determined to eat themselves to death? Edie is engaged in pathological behaviour, and her behaviour has impacted everyone in the family.  Are other people in the family enablers–responsible or partially responsible for Edie’s self-destruction? Edie is at the heart of the novel, and yet she remains strangely blurred. I suspect that this is a deliberate decision on the part of the author as Edie is not understood by anyone in her family or social circle. Edie’s eating disorder, although initiated in childhood, does not occur in a vacuum, and there are hints that her emotionally empty marriage caused her to turn to her old constant friend: food. Towards the end of the novel, the POV shifts, and for a period, suddenly scenes are through the collective eyes of Edie and Richard’s friends, their peers, and as a narrative tool, these friends seem to form a Greek chorus providing commentary–and possibly acknowledged failed responsibility towards Edie–a woman who never hesitated to give her time and energy to those who needed her help.

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