Tag Archives: siblings

All This Could Be Yours: Jami Attenberg

“Some people are just bad forever.”

Author Jami Attenberg is back in familiar territory in All This Could Be Yours. While The Middlesteins explored a family driven to dissolution by one member’s eating disorder, All This Could Be Yours focuses on the Tuchman family as they gather, expectantly, for 73-year-old patriarch Victor’s death. Yes you read that correctly. Expectantly. So what sort of man is Victor if his family hope he hurries up and dies? Here’s daughter Alex, who can’t “wait until her father died,” calling her brother Gary with the news that their father is in hospital:

and she was so breathless with the news about their father’s heart attack she sounded almost joyful, which anyone else might have found inappropriate, but he didn’t, he was on her team, and she was on his. 

Victor’s wife, 68 year old Barbra, after a lifetime of her husband’s infidelity and desultory physical abuse, visits his bedside, speed walks around the hospital floor, and ruminates over the past. Once upon a time Victor and Barbra lived in a Connecticut mansion, but Victor lost his ill-gotten criminal money hushing up an epic sexual harassment scandal. As a result, Victor and Barbra lost their mansion and moved into a condo in New Orleans. But Victor isn’t just a nasty man, he’s a disease, so where he goes he spreads trouble. Victor and Barbra’s son Gary, who’s based In New Orleans, seems mostly to avoid his home and wife Twyla these days. Bad idea. Gary’s divorced sister, lawyer Alex, arrives in New Orleans hoping that her mother will finally offer an explanation of her father’s shady business deals and exactly WHY she stayed with him all these years.

Her mother would have no one to hide behind, nor a reason to keep any secrets from her any longer. Her mother had been loyal all these years, often acting more like her husband’s consigliere rather than like his wife, and Alex knew Barbra wouldn’t say a bad word about Victor before he passed. 

As the story unfolds, and Victor hovers on the brink of death, gradually pieces of his shady life float to the surface, and it’s clear why his children loathe him. Barbra is the epitome of the trophy wife, but those years are over, and Victor and Barbra’s now diminished lifestyle has led to acrimony.

Once she had been the grand prize. He had won her, he thought, like a stuffed animal at a sideshow alley.

The narrative extends back to Victor’s courtship of Barbra (I’m using the term ‘courtship’ loosely here), and while Barbra once loved her brutish spouse, now all the “payoffs” and affluent lifestyle that somehow balanced the negatives in her married life are gone.  While Alex puzzles over the enigma of her parents’ relationship and wants the truth about her father’s deeds, Gary has had a much worse childhood and bore the brunt of his father’s twisted machismo. Gary “spent his whole life caring, in contrast to his father, who’d spent his whole life not caring. “ Meanwhile Gary’s daughter Avery who’s become a companion of sorts to her grandfather has confused feelings about the man who has recently appeared in her life. “She knew there was something off about” him but she can’t quite place what is wrong.

All this could be yours

Victor may be on the brink of death but he oozes through the pages in scenes and memories. This is a chronic sleazy womanizer, a gambler, a criminal who never changes but only becomes more embittered as he loses his looks, his physique and his money.

This would have been the precise moment to acknowledge the crimes of his life that had put them in that exact location. His flaws hovered and rotated, kaleidoscope-like, in front of his gaze, multi-colored, living, breathing shards of guilt in motion. If only he could put together the bits and pieces into a larger vision, to create an understanding of his choices, how he landed on the wrong side, perhaps always had. And always would.
Instead he was angry about the taste of  bottle of Scotch, and suggested to his wife that if she kept a better home, none of this would have happened, and so would she please stop fucking around with the thermostat and leave the temperature just as he liked. And she had flipped another page, bored with his Scotch, bored with his complaints. 

Given the title, inheritance is under examination–not the inheritance of worldly goods, although that does appear, but how we are shaped by our families. Alex’s daughter Sadie must align love of her father with the fact that he uses women, lies to them and throws them away. How does a child incorporate love for a parent with the fact that he or she is a shitty human being? How does that twist the perception of marriage and relationships? Finally a shout out to Barbra’s mother Anya, who made tremendous sacrifices to protect her grandchildren and who is arguably the moral compass of the novel even though she’s long dead and buried.

I recently read Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House which looked at the impact of toxic familial relations. All This Could Be Yours is the same territory–except since this is written by Jami Attenberg there’s a lot of humour. The situation on the surface, a dying arsehole of a father, isn’t exactly funny, so the result is an affirmation of the quirkiness of dysfunctional family life–how we become so used to the weird and unacceptable that it eventually becomes normal.

Review copy

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The Dutch House: Ann Patchett

“I could feel the entire house sitting on top of me like a shell I would have to drag around for the rest of my life.”

A story of inheritance, failed responsibility and restitution, The Dutch House from Ann Patchett is told by Danny Conroy. Danny, now a middle aged man narrates the retrospective tale which begins in Danny’s childhood. Danny and his sister Maeve are the children of real estate tycoon, Cyril Conroy who, following WWII, begins to accumulate real estate in Pennsylvania. The jewel in his crown is ‘the Dutch House’ of the title, a mansion built by the ill-fated VanHoebeek family, whose possessions (what’s left) remain in the house. The fact that inside this incredible house, all these accumulated objects, some worth a considerable amount of money, are forgotten and gathering dust, is significant. The VanHoebeeks were wealthy before the depression, but the disintegration of the family made all else immaterial. 

The Dutch House.

Cyril’s wife, Brooklyn born Elna Conroy, who had at one point been a novice, was uncomfortable with immense wealth and the surprise ‘gift’ of the vast VanHoebeek house. She finds the 3 storey mansion with its walnut bas-relief walls and her new life suffocating, so she abandons her 2 children departing the scene for India. Shortly thereafter, Maeve becomes diabetic.

My father sighed, sank his hands down into his pockets and raised his eyes to assess the position of the clouds, then he told me she was crazy. That was both the long and the short of it.

“Crazy how?”

“Crazy like taking off her coat and handing it to someone on the street who never asked her for a coat in the first place. Crazy like taking off your coat and giving it away too.”

Within a few years, Cyril marries again, an avaricious woman named Andrea who has two young daughters. Andrea, the complete opposite of Cyril’s first wife, holds herself in check, barely, but when Cyril dies unexpectedly, she loses no time in evicting 15-year-old Danny–Maeve has long since been made to feel unwelcome. Maeve and Danny, in a matter of days, find themselves cast out of the house and cut off from what they assumed would be their inheritance. There is, however, an education trust fund set up for Danny and also for Andrea’s two daughters. Maeve, loathing Andrea and feeling the injustice of her stepmother’s actions, pushes Danny into medical school in order to drain as much of the trust as possible.

The novel covers five decades, and most of the novel is defined by Danny’s close relationship with Maeve. They connect through their shared past and also through the home they lost. Maeve is a mother figure, sacrificing herself for Danny in contrast to their mother who ran away, ditching her responsibilities in order to care for strangers.

To say too much more about the plot would be to ruin it for others. This is a strongly narrative novel told by Danny, and we only see glimpses of his wife Celeste who takes second place to Maeve. Through Danny’s tale, the novel explores failed relationships and failed responsibilities. Maeve’s drive to score against Andrea leads Danny to a life he didn’t choose for himself, and yet he still manages to pull himself into a direction in which he’s comfortable. Both Danny and Maeve suffered from their parents’ failed responsibilities. Their mother physically abandoned them, and while their father remained, he emotionally abandoned his children. It’s interesting then to see Danny’s relationship with Celeste. He’s absent in more ways than one. There’s one scene when Celeste sees that Danny has improved Maeve’s kitchen, and Celeste quietly notes that she had wanted exactly the same thing for years. The narration is well-paced and interesting, and I wanted to know what happened to Danny and Maeve. Elan’s early departure stranded the two children for almost their entire adult lives and while they developed into successful people (Maeve was underemployed) the damage was done. Lots of children have it way tougher than Danny and Maeve, but these siblings lost a great deal of money. Ultimately the money lost was secondary to the need for loving parents.

But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.

The novel takes a rather idealised view of human nature (with Andrea sucking up the book’s negative view of humanity). People who’ve been shafted usually seem to scar and yet here healing takes place in a redemptive way.  Should we let toxic people back into our lives? Should we forgive? Is forgiveness for the transgressor or for us? That said, there’s one character I won’t name (but you can guess it if you’ve read the book) who needs a good wallop over the head. Does she not see the irony of her behavior? Perhaps, arguably, it’s ‘penance’ as she says but poor Maeve pays for it as she pays for almost all the bad things that take place in the novel. Telescopic Philanthropy so well described by Dickens. 

Review copy. 

 

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A Severed Head: Iris Murdoch

“In almost every marriage there is a selfish and an unselfish partner. A pattern is set up and soon becomes inflexible, of one person always making the demands and one person always giving way. In my own marriage I early established myself as the one who took rather than gave.” 

Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head opens with our smug married narrator, claret merchant Martin Lynch-Gibbon, winding up a languorous afternoon with his much younger mistress, Georgie.  Christmas is approaching, and for Georgie it’s not an easy time as she won’t be seeing Martin; he’ll be spending a quiet holiday with his wife of 11 years, Antonia. Martin admits to himself that he “misled Georgie about the success” of his marriage. Privately, he considers himself very happily married and it’s clear that Antonia and Georgie occupy some sort Ying-Yang design in Martin’s life (and mind). The two women are polar opposites, and by the end of an afternoon of blissful love with Georgie, Martin is practically purring like a cat. Martin, who’s rather patronizing to Georgie,  brushes over her disappointments, her loneliness, her needs…

I did not fall desperately in love with Georgie; I considered myself by then too old for the desperation and extremity which attends a youthful love. But I loved her with a sort of gaiety and insouciance which was more spring-like than the real spring, a miraculous April without its pangs of transformation and birth. I loved her with a wild undignified joy, and also with a certain cheerful brutality, both of which were absent from my always more decorous, my essentially sweeter relationship with Antonia. I adored Georgie too for her dryness, her toughness, her independence, her lack of intensity, her wit, and altogether for her being such a contrast, such a complement, to the softer and more moist attractions, the more dewy radiance of my lovely wife. I needed both of them, and having both of them I possessed the world.

Both women exist, it seems for Martin’s needs, and if by the end of that quote, you’re annoyed by Martin, then hang on and read the book. Martin is about to get his just desserts. …

A severed head

While Martin is busy in his little love nest with Georgie, Antonia is busy with intrigues of her own. She’s undergoing psychotherapy with American Palmer Anderson. Martin knows Antonia has a case of “tremendous transference,” and that Palmer’s “good at setting people free.” We see the warning signs before Martin does, and after leaving Georgie’s place, he returns to the luxurious home and waits for Antonia. She drops the bombshell that she’s dumping Martin and moving in with Palmer. According to Antonia, marriage is “an adventure in development” and that their union isn’t “getting anywhere.” Martin responds: “one doesn’t have to get anywhere in a marriage. It’s not a public conveyance.” 

There’s the question of ethics. Palmer is having an affair with a married patient, but that’s the not only taboo that exists within the pages of this novel. It would probably be natural to imagine that with Antonia exiting the marriage, Martin would cling to Georgie, but no, he avoids her; she was a complement to Antonia, the antidote if you will, and they exist as a pair of bookends. The relationships “strangely nourished each other.”

Martin mentions early on that Antonia is 5 years older than him, and at several points in the novel, he notes, fondly, that she’s aging, and he tends to mention her in the same sentence as his mother–not a good sign. Hilariously, on some level, Palmer and Antonia recognize this, and while Martin is belligerent at his wife being ‘stolen’ (as he sees it), Palmer and Antonia begin to assume the role of parents with Martin as their ‘sick’ child who must be nursed through the agony and pain of the break-up. Together, Palmer and Antonia want to dissect everything with Martin, so when Antonia discovers Georgie, it adds fuel to the madness. 

A Severed Head is a focused novel and includes just a handful of characters: Martin, Antonia, Palmer, Georgie, Martin’s siblings Alexander and Rosemary, and Palmer’s sister Cambridge don, Honor Klein. They are all mentioned in the first chapter, and they rotate, in their chaotic relationships, rather like a Shakespearean comedy. There are several points in the novel when Martin (who starts out as classic dickhead and then becomes a buffoon) describes difficulty in seeing his way through mists and fogs. This is, of course, literal, but by the end of the book, Martin’s impaired ‘sight’ is figurative. He’s the last person to grasp what’s been going on right under his nose. 

 I loved this book; in its exploration of the ridiculous, bad behaviour of  a handful of educated, privileged people who have far too much spare time on their hands, it’s brilliant and funny. There’s nose-punching, dramatic scenes and inappropriate groping as these upper middle class people find themselves actors in a tawdry drama. 

There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly-taken-for-granted relationship. 

Special thanks to the Gerts for their recent review of Murdoch’s Under the Net which motivated me to dig out one of my many unread novels from this author.

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A Little Lumpen Novelita: Roberto Bolaño

“I knew in the kingdom of crime there were many stages and levels and no matter how hard I tried, I would never reach the top.”

“Now I’m a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime,” and so begins Roberto Bolaño’s book, A Little Lumpen Novelita. It’s an intriguing beginning to an intriguing story. Bianca and her younger brother are orphaned after their parents are killed in a car accident. They remain living in the family flat in Rome, but there’s not enough money to survive. The brother takes a job at a gym, while Bianca starts working at a salon. I’ll rephrase that: Bianca starts working at a salon while her brother says “it was stupid to work, that we could live happily on the pension we got from the government, on the income from our orphanhood.” But the budget is too tight, and so the brother who thinks he can go to eating just one meal a day, finally acknowledges they need money and gets the job at a gym.The brother dreams of being Mr. Universe.

The siblings drift into a life of apathy. It’s an existence; they “killed time watching TV, first the talk shows, then cartoons” They drift along until one day the brother comes home with two men he’s met at the gym. “One was from Bologna, the other from Libya or Morocco.” As the story progresses, these two men become interchangeable in more ways than one.

My brother had met them at the gym, where they did some kind of work that was never clear to me. Sometimes I got the impression that they were trainers, a job with a certain prestige, and other times that they were just sweepers and errand boys, like my brother. Either way, they were always talking about the gym–and so did my brother, with a fervor new to me–and about protein diets and meals with names that had the ring of science fiction, like Fuel tank 3000 or Weider energy bars (all the nutrients you need for the body of a champion!).

But soon Bianca is supporting herself, her brother and his two friends. The atmosphere and situation at the flat are bizarre. Everyone avoids confrontation, and yet there’s a definite silent chain of power combined with the threat of violence. Bianca’s brother is clearly afraid of these two men who have long overstayed their welcome. Then the three males hatch a plan to get rich, and of course, Bianca is the pivotal figure in this grubby scheme:

It’s best not to think about these things. They’re here, they touch us, they’re gone, or they’re here, they touch us, they swallow us up, and it’s best–always–not to think about them. But I kept thinking, waiting for the coffee to be done, and I asked myself what my brother’s friends meant by saying that their luck would change, how exactly they planned to change their luck (their luck, not mine or my brother’s, though in a sense their luck would have an effect–any idiot could see that–on my brother’s luck and maybe even mine), what they were ready to try, how far they were expected to go to get their luck and ours to turn around. 

Bianca is our narrator and she’s somewhat unreliable. She acknowledges that when she embarks on this life of crime her story gets “fuzzier.” Her tale is told in retrospect so how much is due to hazy memory, how much she’d just not rather think about, and how much is due to the inexperience (at the time) of youth, well it’s up for grabs. In some ways this story reminds me of Modiano, but it’s sharper than Modiano in its focus. But I liked this tale, and how Bianca crossed so easily into criminality. Bianca and her brother are both passive by nature, and once they find themselves involved in crime, swept along by forces more malignant than themselves, it seems up to Bianca to either pull the crime together or else make some decisive move to escape. This is beautifully written. Bolaño doesn’t fill in all the gaps for us; instead this is Bianca remembering a murky, desperate point–a crossroads in her life.  The tale illustrates how impossible it is capture a certain state of mind from an earlier point in life, why we made the decisions we did, and that impossibility goes a long way to explaining the tale’s murkier points.

Translated by Natasha Wimmer

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The A-26: Pascal Garnier

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of Pascal Garnier. With A-26, I’ve now read 8 of his novels, and sad to say, I finally found one I disliked. Of course, I was forewarned by Max’s review. A-26 was, unfortunately, Max’s first Garnier, and if it had been my first Garnier, it might well have been my last…

A-26 is the story of two siblings: Bernard and his insane sister Yolande. Wait a minute … I’ve made it sound as though Bernard is sane. He’s employed, takes care of Yolande (in a very loosely defined way) and even has a relationship with a former girlfriend, the resentful Jacqueline (now unhappily married to some other sucker). But Bernard isn’t normal at all … he’s a serial killer, and a sick one at that.

A26

A-26 had some of the hallmark signs of the other Garnier novels I’ve read (and loved)–the idea that when you kill someone you are doing them a favour by sparing them more time in this horrible world, a sparse yet descriptive style and the continual motif of death and decay. Yolande (otherwise known rather appropriately as Yoyo) is a hoarder who has refused to step outside of her home since her head was shaved for sleeping with a German during WWII. As far as Yoyo’s concerned WWII still rages outside her door and while Bernard may say he’s going off to work, he’s really part the Resistance. Yoyo’s only contact with the outside world is through a hole drilled for her benefit in the shutter.

Depending on her mood, she called it the ‘bellybutton’ or the ‘world’s arsehole.’

Yolande and Bernard’s world spins to its end stage when Bernard is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He isn’t afraid to die, and neither is he particularly sorry to leave the world behind. Living with his insane sister who spends her days concocting the most appalling meals, death will be a release for Bernard. Meanwhile Yoyo’s big concern is where to find the space for his body:

‘Bernard’s not gone to work today, he wasn’t up for it. He’s getting tireder and tireder, thinner and thinner. His body’s like this house, coming apart at the seams. Where am I going to put him when he’s dead? There’s not a bit of space left anywhere. We’ll get by, we’ve always got by, ever since I can remember. Nothing has ever left this house, even the toilet’s blacked up. We keep everything. Some day, we won’t need anything else, it’ll all be here, for ever.’

For this reader, while the themes of A-26 certainly fit with the other Garnier novels I’ve read, the black humour, so characteristic in his novels, couldn’t wash away the bad taste of several scenes: the death of victims and the cruelty to animals. While I often feel as though I don’t care what happens to Garnier’s despicable characters, I am, at least, interested in their destructive and self-destructive journeys as the novels careen towards the grand finales. In the case of A-26, I couldn’t care less.

Both Moon in a Dead Eye and Too Close to the Edge concern people who make disastrous retirement decisions, and as it turns out life in a gated community and in the bucolic countryside (respectively) is far more dangerous than living in the big city. While bad things happen to people, there’s the nagging feeling that they’ve brought it upon themselves–at least partly. How’s the Pain? is the story of a dying hit man who hooks up with a rather guileless young man. The juxtaposition of these two characters–dark and light–brings balance to the tale. In The Front Seat Passenger, the main character deserves what he gets. The Islanders concerns another whacko set of siblings, and while the novel takes a turn towards madness, plied with disgusting details, these characters, for the most part, turn on each other. The Panda Theory pushed my acceptance in a couple of scenes, but IMO A-26 went over the edge in its descriptions. Yoyo’s madness is intriguing, but the scenes involving animals left me with no room to care about these people who are a waste of oxygen. I get that Bernard and Yoyo’s life is threatened by the imminent arrival of a motorway, but A-26 for this reader was just unpleasant.

I delayed reading A-26 as I’d read Max’s negative review and had no new Garnier novels in sight. I didn’t want the last one I read to leave a bad memory, but The Eskimo Solution is due to be released 9/16.

So for anyone interested, here’s an order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Panda Theory

A-26

translated by Melanie Florence.

 

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The Wicked Stepmother:Michael McDowell & Dennis Schuetz (writing as Axel Young)

“I’m thinking of murdering him in front of a large crowd of strangers. I have to do it myself,” Verity explained, “because hit men don’t take plastic.”

Authors Michael McDowell (1950-1999) known primarily for horror fiction and Dennis Schuetz, published the campy, over-the-top The Wicked Stepmother in 1983, and thanks to Valancourt books, this title is back in print. It’s full of spiteful, grasping people behaving badly, and I don’t know if it was the author’s intention for readers to find this entertaining book funny in a nasty sort of way, but that’s exactly what it is.

The book opens with spoiled trust fund brat Verity Hawke Larner, the eldest of the three Hawke children still asleep in bed at noon when she’s woken by Louise Larner, her mother-in-law calling from Boston. Verity is married, but separated from Louise’s ne’er-do-well son, the good looking, sleazy low-life drug dealer Eric, but to complicate matters, Louise is also a partner of the real estate company owned by Verity’s father, Richard Hawke, which “handled some of the most exclusive properties in Boston.”

wicked stepmother

This first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book. As Verity struggles from sleep, she tries to remember the name of the man in bed next to her (“It starts with a B,”) and claims she quit her most recent job due to “burnout,” which is a euphemism for too many nights partying on cocaine. Louise insists that Verity drive from Kansas City where she settled two years earlier (as that’s “where the car broke down,”) and return to Boston for a family party.

Verity doesn’t make the party but shows up a few days later at the family mansion in Boston to discover that her father is dead. He collapsed in Atlantic City “slumped across a Blackjack table” just a few days after marrying Louise, and as Louise sniffingly explains to her new step-children, “We only had four days together–but they were perfect days.”

So that leaves Louise as the “wicked stepmother” of the title inheriting, what she imagines, is all of Richard’s estate. At the reading of the will, Louise is stunned by the revelation that although she inherits a decent amount, she doesn’t get everything, and that includes the Hawke mansion, and the eight million dollar trust fund to be divided between Verity and her siblings Jonathan and Cassandra. Louise, who is driven by avarice, then reasons that her stepchildren must die… one by one…

The private lives of the Hawke siblings are explored as part of the plot, so we see promiscuous Verity downing screwdrivers for breakfast and snorting cocaine every chance she gets while Jonathan follows his punk rock band girlfriend, and Cassandra moves on from being a magazine editor.  The lives of these three siblings who never have to worry about a paycheck or having a place to live are in direct contrast to Louise and her son who are both rotten, but also dangerously rapacious, to the core. There are a couple of scenes which are shocking in their complete heartlessness when these two loot the belongings of the dead.

Wicked Stepmother smacks of the 70s with its references to a Lime green Toronado and a yellow Cadillac, and the plot has the feel of a fictionalized tacky ‘true crime’ novel, with the bones of the novel being the lurid crimes fleshed out by the authors’ imagination. Some of the scenes and the dialogue are completely over-the-top, but in spite of the lack of subtlety in characterizations which feeds the novel’s theatricality, the violence, when it occurs is unexpected, shocking and chilling. Living under the protection of money, high society and the looming trust fund fails to prepare the Hawke siblings from the determined greed of Louise whose desire for the Hawke mansion has no moral bounds.

If this were made into a film, I’d place it in the very capable hands of one of my cultural icons, John Waters. He’d be the right person for the job–an assault of the rapacious, murderous self-made on the unprepared, upper classes of Boston.

Review copy.

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The Nest: Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

“How had they raised children who were so impractical and yet so entitled?”

When “self-made” Leonard Plumb created a trust fund for his four children, he knew, from his own bitter family history, that “abundance proffered too soon led to lassitude and indolence, a wandering dissatisfaction.” He didn’t intend to leave his children rolling in money, so he delayed the disbursement until the youngest, Melody, was 40 years old. He wanted his children to make their own way in life and not count on a cushy payout, and reasoned that a lump sum coming in their 40s would be:

“a little something to sit atop their own, inevitable financial achievements […] and pad their retirement a bit, maybe help fund a college tuition or two. Nothing so vast as to be truly significant”

Unfortunately, Leonard’s well-intentioned plans didn’t work out the way he reasoned. He could not have predicted that “as the fund grew so, too, would his children’s tolerance for risk.” Leo, the eldest, at forty-six, has made and wasted millions and is about to be cleaned out by his avaricious soon-to-be ex-wife, Victoria, a “world-class spendthrift.” Jack, a gay antique dealer, has secretly been paying his bills by using a line of credit against a vacation home he owns with his husband. Bea, a “formerly talented” writer can’t finish a novel and now works for a literary magazine called Paper Fibres which may appear to be keeping afloat but is really financed by the owner, Paul’s elderly maiden aunts. After years of scrimping but still living beyond their means, Melody whose “fortieth birthday glowed like a distant lighthouse, flashing its beam of rescue” plans to use her money to send her twins to expensive schools and pay off her house loans. All of the siblings, with the exception of Bea, have counted on “the Nest” to bail them out of their self-created financial woes.

the nest

A few months before Melody’s 4oth, a drunk and wasted Leo, a “narcissistic sociopath” (according to Victoria) ditches his wife at a wedding and causes an accident which leads to a permanent disability for the 19 year old waitress who is the passenger in his careening Porsche. Terrified of scandal, and wanting to avoid any financial involvement, Leo’s mother, the widow Plumb, always remote, “disengaged” and now remarried, but with power of attorney over the trust account, decimates “the Nest” by paying off the waitress and her family. After all, Leo, she reasons, is “the least needy and therefore, the one she thought of with the most fondness.” Leo, who’s been holed up in rehab, returns to New York, to the remains of his ruined life and to face his angry siblings. All that remains of “The Nest” is a fraction of the amount the four Plumb siblings expected. This is a disaster that everyone must face and one that has lasting repercussions for all involved.

Set in New York, the literal ‘nest’ for the siblings, the novel manages to capture the nuances and recent history of the city–the incredibly high cost of housing, the aftermath of 9-11, and the impact of AIDS on the gay community.

The Nest, a debut novel from Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney is caustically funny, and most of the humour comes from the self-destructive behaviours of the Plumb family–most notably Leo who is a charming philanderer always managing to step away from disaster while others mop-up. Sweeeny has a sharp eye which focuses on the subtleties of sibling relationships, and how dynamics established in childhood never really alter with the passage of time. While the tale’s focus is humour, there are a lot of painful truths here. The promise of a generous mid-life inheritance has done little for the Plumb siblings other than cause them to plan for the big payday, and as a result of the money they think is headed their way, they’ve all (with the exception of Bea) made horrible financial moves, delayed maturity, and have refused to face some realities.

The book’s humor keeps up a good pace throughout the novel, which, given the content– squabbling, desperate siblings and a depleted inheritance, is no small feat. I particularly loved the scenes of the Plumb parents–long deceased patriarch, Leonard Plumb and his inappropriate enthusiasms for his work, and his widow Francie who can’t keep her children’s birthdays straight, thinks Melody needs Botox, and when it comes to the matter of using “The Nest” to bail out Leo has to “contend with this execution squad of her own children.” The scene in which Melody recalls her only childhood party is priceless. It’s lamely organized by her mother, Francie, who’s furiously downing martinis wearing a silk kimono which “this early in the day was a very bad sign.”

But then Francie started singing “Over the Rainbow” and only a few verses in she started to weep. “Mom?” Melody said, weakly.

“It’s just so, so sad,” Francie said. She turned to them. “The studios killed Judy Garland. They killed her. That voice and what a tragedy. They made her and then they killed her.”

The girls were sitting quietly, nervously giggling. “Uppers to work all day. Downers to sleep at night. She was just a kid.” Francie stood now, facing them, her robe gaping a little in front. “I wanted to be an actress. I could have gone to Hollywood.”

One of the criticisms I read about the novel is that while readers enjoyed it, they considered ‘light.’ I recently read Tessa Hadley’s The Past, another novel about siblings and inheritance, and while The Past is a deeper novel with stronger characterizations and a gorgeous sense of the passage of time, The Nest‘s delightful humorous approach should not eradicate the serious messages here regarding our frequently unhealthy relationships with money.

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The Past: Tessa Hadley

“Had anyone, Alice insufferably said, ever seen her with a book?”

I’ve been circling the work of Tessa Hadley for some time, attracted by the themes, and yet reluctant to commit as I’ve never been not quite sure of the substance. The description of The Past was something I could no longer resist, and now, after turning the last page, I want to read everything this author has written.

The premise of The Past is simple enough–four siblings congregate on the country home of their now deceased grandparents for a three week holiday with the purpose of deciding, finally, whether to sink money into the decaying former rectory, or sell it and split the profit. Of course with four siblings–three female and one male, now all firmly in middle age, we can expect some complicated familial politics, and Tessa Hadley delivers the delicate nuances of these relationships exquisitely.

The Past

Harriet is the eldest sibling. She’s unmarried but has a partner, Christopher who’s always off riding his bicycle somewhere. Serious, plain Harriet has spent her youth devoted to political causes and is currently involved with “advising” asylum seekers. She’s unattractive and feels severely challenged by the idea of femininity. Perfume, makeup, putting together an attractive ensemble of clothes… these things escape her and proximity to her sister Alice’s femininity always leads her to feel secretly inadequate.

Next in age is Roland, a university academic and the author of several successful books–he’s on his third wife, Pilar, a glacial, perfectly groomed, intense Argentinian lawyer who, adopted by right wing elite during the Dirty War, rejects left-wing politics as annoying frivolity. Roland and Pilar are accompanied by Roland’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Molly.

Then there’s 46-year-old failed actress Alice–once so promising but now she’s not sure if she’s made a mess of her life. Very conscious of her appearance, she’s waiting for the next man to come along, and in the meantime, she drags along Kasim, the son of a former lover, for the holiday. Alice wonders “whether people seeing them would think Kasim was her lover, or her child.”

The youngest sibling is Fran, a teacher and the distracted mother of two fey children–Ivy and Arthur. Fran’s musician husband is also glaringly absent from the gathering.

It’s supposed to be a family holiday with no outsiders–a rule broken by Alice when she drags Kasim along, but then Alice feels justified since Roland is bringing his new third wife, and at this point, to the sisters, Roland’s wives seem temporary phases of his life: “Roland and his seraglio – as Alice called them, though not to his face.” The sisters disliked Roland’s second wife, Valerie, and consider the marriage a disaster.

-Roland should think about us when he gets married so often. Fran said. -All over again, we have to learn to live with a new wife. We’d got used to Valerie.

-Sort of used to her.

-I wasn’t ever used to her, Ivy said.

-Her voice was screechy and her head went like a chicken’s when she walked.

-Like this, said Arthur, imitating it.

Alice said wasn’t it such a relief, now that Valerie was a thing of the past, to be able to come out with the truth at last?

At the house, various dramas play out between the siblings, the children, and their guests. The children, locked into their own impenetrable world, and left largely to their own devices, discover a secret at a nearby abandoned, decaying cottage. Alice and Pilar, polar opposites in temperament, clash over who has the proprietary relationship with Roland, and Harriet finds herself befriended by Pilar; it seems an incongruous friendship, and even Harriet has to brush away some uncomfortable thoughts:

When Harriet was twelve or thirteen, she’d had a friend at school whom she’s loved and who had used her, sending her on pointless little errands, finding out where she was vulnerable and prodding there, resorting to her company when there was no one more interesting, dropping occasional kindnesses like crumbs. Harriet had tidied this memory away, believing it belonged safely with childish things; now she remembered her mother’s impatience with this friend’s exploitation, and her own inability to explain what she knew about it -that the abjection was not a downside, but the essential fabric of her love.

While the plot of this novel is certainly enough to capture interest, it’s the author’s rich style which elevates this marvelous novel:

Alice and Kasim stood peering through the French windows: the interior seemed to be a vision of another world, its stillness pregnant with meaning, like a room seen in a mirror. The rooms were still furnished with her grandparents’ furniture; wallpaper glimmered silvery behind the spindly chairs, upright black-lacquered piano and bureau. Painting were pits of darkness suspended from the picture rail. Alice had told her therapist that she dreamed about this house all the time. Every other house she’d lived in seemed, beside this one, only a stage set for a performance.

As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the house and the influence of their long deceased grandparents had a pivotal role in the lives of the siblings. Their mother died while they were still quite young, and “their father had gone to pieces –  which was forgivable – and run off to France with another woman, leaving his orphaned children behind -which wasn’t” Tessa Hadley creates a unique world centered on the four generations who’ve lived in this splendid old house, and shows us, with admirable insight, the evolution of essential personality traits that both undermine and support these individuals in their lives and their familial relationships. While Fran is not quite as fully developed a character as her siblings, and at times she seems like an addendum to this tale, somehow by the last page, this mirrors the plot of this wonderful tale of family dynamics, sibling politics and unspoken family crisis.

New growth sprouted livid green, the tan mulch under the pines in a plantation had darkened to ox blood, unripe blackberreies were fuzzy with grey mould. Beside a path a bank had sheared away ina  smear of red mud; skirting around it they saw  into the raw root-gape, like flung arms, of a tree upended, its deep hole whiskery with torn roots.

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Saturday Night at the Greyhound: John Hampson (1931)

I stumbled across Saturday Night at the Greyhound by John Hampson while perusing Kindle titles from Valancourt Books. I’d never heard of the novel or the author before, so I was surprised to learn that this debut novel, published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, was a “smash hit” in its time. According to the introduction from Helen Southworth, Hampson was born in Birmingham, his family had a brewery, and after that failed he worked in hotels and restaurants. He spent time in prison for stealing books but eventually became a paid caretaker for a Down’s Syndrome child, and with this job to support him, was able to write. This is a very short novel, around 111 pages, a story of violence, domestic strife and pub life set in 1930s Britain.

Ivy Flack, born and raised in a Birmingham pub, knows the business very well, and on her own, or with her brother, Tom, she could have been a successful businesswoman. Unfortunately, Ivy, courted by many men, has the bad judgment to marry the worst of the lot. A series of financial disasters finds Ivy, Fred Flack and Ivy’s brother, Tom trying to run a Derbyshire rural pub, but failure is imminent. With Flack, drinking, giving away or gambling the profits, the Flacks are on the edge of ruin. Flack is one of those glib, egotistical men who never acknowledge their failures, and he refuses to face up to the fact that Ivy’s nestegg is practically all committed to debt. Flack loves running a pub; he’s generous with free drinks, and he’s on the tail end of an affair with barmaid, Clara. Clara, the bastard daughter of the local, now-dead squire, longs to escape from the village, and while she isn’t in love with Fred, she’s ready to use him as her ticket out. Clara’s mother, the malevolent Mrs Tapin also works in the pub. The pub can’t support the Tapins but Flack refuses to fire them.

Saturday nightThe book opens with Mrs Tapin who “ loved four things–money, gossip. thinking, and Clara.” She has “seen fourteen men take over the Greyhound Inn in her time. Fourteen and none of them made it pay.” Of course it doesn’t help the Flacks that Mrs Tapin is robbing them blind. Tom knows that the Tapins are no good, and he understands that if he and Ivy ran the pub alone, they’d scrape a living from it. Ivy, always weak where Fred is concerned, believes that her chronically unfaithful husband is tempted by other women, and she refuses to throw him out. So when the novel opens, our central characters, tied by their relationships to one another, are trapped trying to make a success out of the Greyhound.

There are some marvelous insights into the running of a pub, and exactly what separates a successful publican from a failure. Ivy, Tom and Fred are out-of-their-depth in the countryside where customers are marginal and free-spending travelers are rare. From their hard-working parents, Tom and Ivy learned how to run a pub:

From business acuteness they never refused to drink with a customer, but while beer was paid for, all they consumed was cold tea from a hidden jug.

Hampson’s story explores how decent, hardworking characters destroy themselves through love–Ivy in her relationship with Fred, and quiet, serious Tom through his love for sister. So in many ways Hampson constructs a different sort of love triangle.

While part of the novel moves back into Ivy and Tom’s publican history at the Crown and Cushion in Birmingham, the majority of the plot concentrates on one pivotal Saturday night at the Greyhound. Saturday night brings the most business to the pub, and this night is no exception, so the evening begins with preparation for the custom to come, and then follows the events of that evening.

Good old Brum, there was no other place quite like it. Those were the days; from the Bull Ring came a steady flow of custom during the house’s open hours. Market-men, porters from the Midland Station, and the street hawkers used the place regularly, and there had always been a good number of chance people.

Readers should be warned that there is an incident of horrible animal cruelty committed by one of the characters. It’s a scene with an image I would rather not have had planted in my head. We are obviously meant to see the act as horrendous, and it’s an incident that adds to the tension, but that didn’t make it any easier to read, and in a way, after that, the rest of the story paled in an anticlimactic fashion. Overall, animals don’t fare well in this story but serve to show the brutality of the human race; at one point a departing publican, who can’t sell his chickens to Flack, wrings their necks before moving on, and a villager regularly presents dead chickens at the pub, blaming the Flack’s greyhound for their deaths and demanding recompense.

Hampson introduces an upper class couple into the story, and one of the characters is deeply affected by the events she witnesses. Interestingly, she is the sole character altered by events, and this adds to the bleakness of the tale. The story is strongest in its setting and depiction of pub life with an overweening sense of evil that lingered after the last page of this ultimately unsatisfying tale. There’s an agelessness to the story; it could have easily been the 19th century, and that perhaps is due to the various human emotions that brace this tale: lust, love and hatred.

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Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd

Towards the end of Three Brothers, the latest novel from British author Peter Ackroyd, a main characters, Daniel, one of the three brothers in the title, writes a book about London. One of the book’s themes “concerned the patterns of associations that linked the people of the city,” and that theme also dominates Three Brothers–a novel about connections and estrangement.

The three very different brothers of the title are born in post-WWII Camden and all share the same birthday but are born one year apart. It’s a bizarre coincidence, just the first in a novel of many coincidences and eerie connections. The boys, Harry, Daniel, and Sam are the product of Philip, a failed writer turned night watchman who married a young woman named Sally. Early in the boys’ childhood, Sally disappears, and it’s assumed–although never discussed–that she’s run off. Later in the novel, that mystery is solved.

Three brothersLiving in a depressing household without a mother, the boys grow apart rather than bond together. Harry, the seemingly resilient, popular, confident oldest boy, dumps school as soon as possible, and begins his meteoric newspaper career as a lowly messenger boy. His life choices are driven by ambition. The middle son, bookish Daniel, is studious, and introspective; his  ambition takes a slightly different form. He studies, passes the 11 plus, sails to grammar school and university. Abandoning his humble council house origins, and eventually becoming a successful academic, he cannot embrace his own social and sexual identity.

The youngest brother, Sam is the best human being of the bunch: kind, generous, and yet he’s solitary, has difficulty with social interactions and experiences strange visions. The latter is so much a part of Sam’s life that we don’t immediately know the divisions between reality and fantasy. Yet in spite of Sam’s handicaps, while the novel traces the very different lives of these three brothers, and the choices that shape their sad and lonely lives, it’s Sam’s ability to reach out and forgive that takes this tale in an expanded direction. His choices place him squarely in several mysteries: what happened to his mother, for example and also he becomes involved in the murder of a connective character.

It’s impossible not to consider Dickens with the introduction of one of the characters, the anachronistically named Jackdaw, an “emaciated” thief/rent-boy/fence, who “operated south of the river in Southwark and Bermondsey. He had a reputation for viciousness,” and has been known to beat and/or “slash” his enemies. London then, be it the London of Dickens or the London of Ackroyd  (Ackroyd’s books include a biography of Dickens and a biography of London), remains the same immutable force–a city of vast corruption, poverty, cannibalizing ambition, and many dirty secrets filed away in the offices of the rich and powerful. Ackroyd’s allusion to Dickens is loud and clear in this lecture given by Daniel, traumatized by the sordid viciousness of the literary world who always finds solace in literature:

“What we have to explain, in Bleak House, is the imagery of the prison.” The first supervision had begun on time.
“It is perfectly obvious that, in most of Dickens’s novels, the city itself becomes a form of penitentiary in which all of the characters are effectively manacled to the wall. If it is not a cell, it is a labyrinth in which few people find their way. They are lost souls.”

“But what then,” the young man in spectacles asked him, “do we make on the continuing use of coincidence?”

“That is the condition of living in the city, is it not? The most heterogeneous elements collide. Because, you see, everything is connected to everything else.”

Three Brothers can be viewed as an argument to Dickens’s timelessness and craft. Just as Dickens’s novels include many lost boys: Oliver Twist, Pip, and David Copperfield who all struggle with identity and establishing a place in society, Ackroyd offers us three young men: Harry, Daniel, and Sam–all largely clueless about the invisible forces in the lives as they struggle, flounder and face moral compromise. This is a world of connections, so there’s a direct line from the newspaper office to the slum landlord to the government, and of course, while this is not exactly startling, this intricate web of power is always there impacting the lives of the three brothers in ways they initially do not realize.

There’s a pervading sadness to this tale. The three brothers all launch into vastly different lives, and Harry and Daniel are, in terms of all worldly measurement successful, yet happiness eludes them–perhaps because happiness was never included in their plans. Harry, who trades integrity for success, is lauded by his insufferable crude, coarse employer Sir Martin Flaxman who tells a crowd at a party: “Most [reporters] are arse-lickers. Tame Poodles pretending to be guard dogs. But not Harry. He knows what he is. He likes it.” The irony to that statement is that Harry rises to the top simply because he obeys orders and doesn’t stir the murky waters of the shady corrupt London power-brokers.

Similarly Daniel, who enjoys an academic and publishing career, confides to a friend: “I feel” he said, “that I’m on the sidelines of everything. There’s something really great going on somewhere, but I have nothing to do with it.” Harry and Daniel with their fabricated pasts never quite manage to connect to their lives–their identities are suits of clothes donned for the duration. Sam, who is another Dickens “lost soul” just like his two brothers however, is different. I never quite bought his visions or the eerie connective moments between the three estranged brothers, but it’s Sam’s open generous, ambitionless heart that eventually leads the reader to the novel’s secrets.

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