Tag Archives: married life

Little Disasters: Randall Klein

Randall Klein’s debut novel, Little Disasters, is told through the voices of two men: Michael and Paul. These two very different men are connected by the fact that their wives each gave birth on the same day, at the same Brooklyn hospital. That’s how they met, waiting for the news while their wives were in labour. Furniture maker Michael is married to cookie entrepreneur Rebecca, and actor and paralegal Paul is married to writer, Jenny. Rebecca gives birth to a baby boy, but Jenny’s baby dies. Fast forward to a year later and Michael who is now having an affair with Jenny, receives a text saying she can’t meet him. Both men find themselves stranded in the city, unable to get home, and their stories move back and forth in time.

The four characters, with their careers, and personal tics, are well constructed. When we first see Rebecca, she’s preparing to leave for the hospital, and everything is all perfectly done: bags packed, and even a celebratory flask of bourbon for her husband etc. The married couples are so well drawn that’s it’s easy to see why they are together, and how they work together–each partner compensating and/or complementing the other.

The birth of Michael’s son changes his marriage dramatically: chaos reigns and sex is more or less just a memory, and of course, since Jenny and Paul’s baby died, there’s a layer of grief which has damaged their marriage. But was it that great before the loss of the baby? Paul invites Michael and Rebecca over for dinner, ostensibly to discuss bookshelves, but in reality, it’s a desperate move from Paul to inject some healing into his marriage. Ironically, of course, that plan goes haywire and Michael and Jenny embark on an affair. …

Little disasters

While the premise was good, it was difficult to have sympathy with Michael who moans about how his life has changed, especially since the moaning is in light of the fact that they have a healthy child. Then again, he didn’t really plan on having a child that soon, and he feels a bit betrayed that Rebecca stopped taking the pill without his agreement.

Would be nice to have a beer with someone–I didn’t realize that would stop once my wife pushed out a baby. I didn’t realize that having a child would lead to the immediate death of my social life. I’m not an adolescent and I don’t exist in a sitcom; I knew sacrifices would be made. I knew I wasn’t going to be stumbling home while Rebecca provided the 2:00 am feeding, but I didn’t anticipate the full stop at he end of the sentence. Plug up that release valve and it has to go somewhere, doesn’t it?

For this reader, the book’s best scene takes place when the two couples meet for dinner for the first time: Rebecca and Michael should have RUN. Rebecca has obviously been drinking and seems determined to embarrass everyone with stories about her sexual past:

She punctuates the story by finally spooning gazpacho between her lips. I give Jennifer an appreciate smirk. Shine on, you crazy diamond. You roped me back in. “What happened to Danny Perlis?” I ask.

“He gave me a lecture that he clearly thought was eviscerating and I thought was directed entirely to my tits. Probably a good thing that we didn’t elope like he wanted . I loved him, but the thing I loved most about him was how much he loved me. I mailed his ring back after graduation. 

Jennifer pushes her virtually untouched bowl of soup forward. She drains another glass of wine and reaches halfway across the table for the bottle but Paul’s arm shoots out and grabs it first. He holds it just out of Jennifer’s reach and the two of them glare at each other. Rebecca has on her no-lipped mortified face, but I cannot imagine a better standoff. Either they will go full George-and-Martha and my wife and I will get home (or to a bar, so long as we have babysitters …) or she’ll wrestle the bottle from his hands and deliver another monologue of her checkered sexual history. Either way, I’m getting dinner and a show. 

While the two marriages were nicely created, and the nuances of the affair (between ‘friends’) well done,  the background setting of the disaster which occurs in NYC was, after a while, a distracting structural device that did not serve the plot.

I recently finished We Don’t live Here Anymore from Andre Dubus (review to follow) which follows  the lives of married couples Hank and Edith & Jack and Terry. The two books, We Don’t Live Here Anymore and Little Disasters were read back-to-back, and as it turned out, this was a fortuitous choice. We Don’t Live Here Anymore has a totally different take on infidelity, and comparing the two books was thought provoking. The infidelity writers of several decades ago (Updike, Dubus, Roth) seem fascinated by the act of infidelity itself, while today infidelity seems so much more wrapped around the pressures of commuting, child-rearing, juggling two careers, oversized mortgages, etc. Little Disasters is infidelity of the 21st century. Still the same act, but the view is a little more domestic-centric than its 70s/80s counterparts.

review copy

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To The Back of Beyond: Peter Stamm

I’ve read a number of novels this year which explored the stress of married life: juggling bills, childcare, commuting, and Swiss author Peter Stamm’s To The Back of Beyond slots into those earlier reads. This is the story of a seemingly happily married man who one day simply …. walks away.

To the back of Beyond

The book begins with married couple, Thomas and Astrid putting their children Konrad and Ella to bed. It’s mid-August and they’ve just returned from holiday. Astrid and Thomas are enjoying a glass of wine in the garden when Astrid goes to soothe Konrad. Thomas is left alone. He imagines the house was hot and stuffy in their absence, and then his thoughts turn to Astrid:

Thomas imagined Astrid making two separate piles of clean and dirty clothes She carried the dirty things down to the utility room in the basement and put the clean ones away in the closet in the bedroom; the kids’ things she folded neatly and left in a pile on the stairs to carry up tomorrow. She stopped for a moment at the foot of the steps and listened to a few quiet sounds from upstairs, the children getting comfortable in their newly made beds, in thoughts or dreams they were still at the beach, or maybe already back in school.

Thomas folds up his newspaper, walks out of the garden and out into the town. From there he slips into the woods and disappears from Astrid’s life.

Part of this short book follows Thomas while other sections follow Astrid as she tries to adjust to his absence, initially covering for him at work, until she can no longer hide the reality of Thomas’s absence.

There’s a strange, dream-like quality to the book. The author very quickly establishes the idea of how life goes on in our absence: for example, the house still exists when Thomas and Astrid are on holiday, so when Thomas leaves, Astrid and his children carry on both in reality and in his imagination.

When Astrid realized that Thomas wasn’t lying beside her, she would suppose he was already up, even though she invariably got up first. She would go upstairs half asleep and wake the children and go downstairs again. Then minutes later, freshly showered and in her robe, she would emerge from the bathroom and call the children who were bound to be still in bed.

There’s a whole ‘Sliding Doors‘ membrane over this subtle tale: did Thomas really leave Astrid or is he imagining a life without her? When we know someone, a life, a routine well enough, we can predict that person’s day, is that what Thomas does? Does he play with the idea of leaving or does he actually go? When does a marriage condense down to a routine? There’s nothing more real than a routine; schedules and routine can so easily replace living. What’s real here and what is fantasy? But this is not just male fantasy (and what happens to Thomas could certainly be construed as male fantasy,) there’s also fantasy taking place in Astrid’s mind. But then again, is this just Thomas’s ego-centric wish-fulfillment of the faithful little woman longing for her absent husband’s return? This is for the reader to decide.

Review copy

Translated by Michael Hofmann

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Small Hours: Jennifer Kitses

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.

Small hours

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???

Review copy

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