I come from a big family. Well, big enough. A brother, two sisters, and a step-brother, with whom I grew up. And a half brother with whom I didn’t. Three sets of grandparents. Lots of uncles and aunts. And cousins. Numerous great aunts and uncles, in Mum’s family, whose names I could never get straight, or whether they were Grammy’s brother or sister, or Grampy’s. Funnily enough, I seem to remember all the greats, not as individuals, but as pairs. Aunt Laversa and Uncle Sam. Aunt Ada and Uncle Ernest. Aunt Lenora and Uncle Ben. Then there were Grammy’s two brothers who married sisters, making all their children what we called “double cousins.” Yep. That’s a pretty big family. And pretty complex, I’d say.
So even though Hubby and I don’t have kids, family, and family dynamics, has always been important to me. Important, enriching, infuriating, always fascinating, and the subject of endless analysis and story-telling. I could write a book. We all could. Which is where I’m going with all this. Books about family dynamics.
Like Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeny’s book The Nest about which so much has been said and written lately. You can’t wade through a book store these days without tripping over piles of this book. In fact, we read it for my book club this month. “And what do I think of it?” you ask. Hmmm. I almost put it down after a few pages. The opulent wedding in the opening scene, the older guy seducing the young waitress, and whisking her off in his rented Porsche… ick. That’s so not even close to anything I am interested in reading. But I persisted. I was pulled in. Sweeney’s writing style is flawless. She can spin a good yarn. Make her settings come alive. But… still… this novel ultimately left me cold.
|Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney source|
When we were discussing Sweeney’s book at book club the other night, I couldn’t help contrasting it with a very different novel about family dynamics which I read recently. Anne Enright’s The Green Road is as gritty and punchy as Sweeney’s is punch-pulling. I remarked on the coincidence of reading two books simultaneously about families with a widowed mother, four middle-aged children, one of whom is gay, one of whom works in the arts, and one of whom is a stay-at-home mother. But although the siblings in Enright’s book also squabble, they are very different from the family in Sweeney’s book. Enright creates complete characters. Lovely, and flawed, and totally sympathetic, even when they do abhorrent things. As Alex Preston says in his review in The Guardian: Enright’s characters are “battered, beautiful, dancing to the music of Enright’s exquisite style.”
|Anne Enright source|
I won’t go into the plot of Enright’s book, except to say that it is a novel about the need to escape, or move away, and then about the pain and solace of coming home. You can read more about it here in James Woods’ beautifully written review in the New Yorker. I love how Woods thinks, and how he writes. He says that Anne Enright’s book is “true and rueful.” That she understands what it is to be an adult, to be middle-aged, to feel that an “impostor has grown up around oneself, choking off one’s own youth.” He says that Enright shows us how, even though children grow up, and parents grow old, “beneath the social achievements of adult life beat the wings of childhood.” Now that’s beautiful.
|A green road in the Republic of Ireland source|
I have one more book that I want to mention. One that I’ve yet to read, but which I read about in the December issue of Vogue, in an article entitled “Dad, Interrupted” by Jeanne Darst. Darst’s 2011 memoir Fiction Ruined My Family, is thestory of her growing up as the youngest child of an alcoholic mother and a journalist/novelist father, the publication of which destroyed her relationship with her father. And needn’t have.
It seems to me that, as a writer, critic, and journalist, her father might have understood the need for his daughter to write her book. Might have been more generous and less critical. Apparently he told family friends who mentioned that they were enjoying Jeanne’s book to “hold off on reading until he could send them his “notes.” His notes on what [she] had gotten wrong came in at 140 pages. The book was 303.” As she says in the article, “I assumed [my father] would see the book as my book, not the book, about our family.”
I really liked Jeanne Darst’s article, and I hope I enjoy the memoir as much. I’ve ordered it from the library, so I’ll let you know what I think after I’ve read it. I already know from this article and another one I read in Vogue a while ago, that Jeanne Darst is funny and wry, and a good writer who has her own demons to quell. She says she “inherited alcoholism from her mother and writing from her father,” and she “doesn’t know which one is worse.” And I also know from her writing that she tells it like it is… or at least as she sees it. As she put it: “Drunk or sober, I have a lifelong case of what Dorothy Parker called “the frankies.”
This most recent article in Vogue is about her hoped for reconciliation with her father. How she dreams of giving her son the Christmas he wants. They’ll fly from Los Angeles to New York for an east coast Christmas, with “massive amounts of snow, rambunctious cousins, the works.” And maybe “at midnight Mass this Christmas Eve, [her] nine-year-old son will sit beside [her] 83-year-old father as he theatrically belts out ‘Adeste Fideles.”” Maybe.
Stories of family angst, of the often flawed dynamic between parents and children, brother and sister, father and daughter are hard to read whether they’re fictional or otherwise. Hard, but so worth reading. Worth reading, that is, if they are handled carefully, honestly, and with the intent to, not just entertain, but to illuminate the nature of family. Which is, according to James Woods, the most perfect “conduit for the transfer of misery and the source of all joy.”
Gad. That’s heavy stuff for a Monday evening.
Now. What are your favourite books, fictional or otherwise, about family dynamics? We’re waiting with pencils poised.