Monday, November 28, 2016

Family Dynamics... Fictional or Otherwise

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.

Hen's nesting box with three eggs.
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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. 

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
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The premise of the book, you may or may not know, is that four middle-aged siblings are waiting to inherit their legacy, dubbed "the nest," which will come to them when the youngest turns forty. Their industrialist father did not want their inheritance to become the making of them. Instead he contrived to leave a reasonable sum, not a fortune, to be inherited when they were all middle-aged. Thus it would merely be something extra they could use to add to what they would have obviously made of their lives already. Ha. Thanks to the rising markets and careful investing by the trustee, the sum grew enormously. And then was depleted by their mother to help the eldest out of a jam. Depleted by a lot. Most of the book deals with the various messes, financial and otherwise, all the children have made of their lives. Why they really, really need their inheritance. And how pissed they are at the brother who was in the jam. Janet Mashin in the New York Times says the book is of the "squabbling sibling genre." Yep. And in a scathing review in the Globe and Mail, Marissa Stapley says: "never before have I read anything that so fully deserves to be tweeted about with the hashtag #firstworldproblems." Oh, thank-you for saying that, Marissa. Her advice to book clubs which she feels will ultimately be reading and discussing this book is priceless: "Do me a favour and let the discussion be about something other than the ways in which you identify with these characters, and more about the ways in which we can all be more, while consuming and wanting for less of what we already have." Damn, I wish I had read that before my book club meeting.  

Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney source
I feel a bit guilty panning The Nest. I mean, Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney looks like a really nice, pleasant person. And it is her first novel. Still, she's not some neophyte writer toiling away in an unheated garret, but a veteran of twenty years of non-fiction freelance writing, with lots of connections in the publishing and writing world, who pocketed a million dollar advance to write the book. So... maybe I don't feel that guilty. 

Anne Enright's novel The Green Road.
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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. Picture from The Irish Times.
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, picture from The Guardian.
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 the story 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." 

Jeanne Darst's memoir, Fiction Ruined My Family
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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. 

And speaking of families. First families, to be precise. You may remember that I swore off Vogue last spring, but I broke my own rule and bought the December issue of Vogue because of the cover story on Michelle Obama. A wonderful article written by Jonathan Van Meter, and photographed by Annie Leibovitz. And I have to say that the whole issue is top notch. The articles, the fashion editorials, everything.  I was impressed. Guess they pulled out all the stops with this one. Good show, Anna et al.




Now. What are your favourite books, fictional or otherwise, about family dynamics?  We're waiting with pencils poised. 






Linking up today with Saturday Share Link-up at Not Dressed As Lamb  and Thursday Favourite Things at Katherine's Corner

36 comments:

  1. Oh dear, I can never answer those "favourite book" questions. Narrowing it down doesn't appeal, somehow. I enjoyed The Nest more than you did, sounds like, although I shared some of your reservations. Haven't read this latest Enright, but oh my, her earlier The Gathering is devastating on family. And very moving. Then there's Karl Ove Knausgaard's oeuvre which I'm working my way through (recently finished Volume 4) -- if Darst thought her dad was annoyed at her book, Knausgaard's got half his family not speaking to him, and I'd say they've got pretty good cause, frankly. Same thing happened with our former wannabe prime minister, Michael Ignatieff, and his novel Scar Tissue which was too close to memoir for the many he offended. . . Very tricky territory. . . and yet, family is the story we all want to tell, no? It's where stories begin, and stories are what we are (as one of my favourite authors, Thomas King, keeps saying). For a story about family that I really love, even if I don't choose a favourite, have you read Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach?

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    1. I would agree that Enright is devastating on family. Sometimes a bit too close to home, actually, in her depictions... making them uncomfortable reads. But she is such an awesome writer. Love that line...stories are what we are. I haven't read Eden Robinson's book, although a few of my students did for their independent study one year.

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  2. I am looking forward to jotting down suggestions from your comments section (as well as the books that you mentioned). I enjoy books that draw me into family dynamics. That being said, I am having a hard time coming up with examples at the moment ... I should probably not be making the attempt before my morning coffee!

    Joanna Trollope is one author who comes to mind as someone who does family dynamics well (and is probably a lighter read than some of the more intense-sounding titles mentioned already).

    I love it, Sue, when you and your readers get into book discussions. I have noted many authors and titles from following your blog, and have enjoyed some excellent discoveries!

    Denise L.

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    1. I do like Joanna Trollope, although I prefer her early books to her later ones. I loved the Rector's Wife...and the depiction of the family in A Passionate Man is wonderful. She knows children, and cats, that's for sure. I never forgot the description of the cat who hid in the kitchen drawer. But I think that A Spanish Lover is my favourite of hers. I've kind of gone off her of late, though.
      Glad you enjoy the book discussion, Denise.

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    2. I agree on preferring Trollope's earlier books to her later ones. I haven't given up on her entirely, but her more recent novels have more of a "pop fiction" feel to them. (Denise L.)

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  3. So agreed with you last spring when you swore off Vogue: I had just renewed (after a couple years' absence) in aid of a cousin's child's school fundraiser, and was regretting the decision! And this reaction, from a woman whose first memories of Vogue date from 9 years of age, poring over the issues my mother had borrowed from the public library! As luck would have it, my final issue of this subscription IS the December issue! I hadn't torn off the protective plastic yet, but based on your "review" I'm getting excited!
    As for books, have stepped up my game on Goodreads, after slacking off on book reading in favour of online news and fashion blogs (!) Nothing to recommend myself at the moment, but have entered the titles you've recommended to my "Want to Read" list!

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    1. Oh, that's ironic, isn't it? Now... based on this issue of Vogue, do you renew or not?

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  4. I had the same reading experience with The Nest. I read it all the way through, enjoyed it to a point, but was ultimately put off by the characters and their lifestyles/views on money. I did like the Anne Enright - a little slow at times, but a good read. I am currently reading the new Donna Morrissey - too early to tell about this one .

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    1. Yea, that was my reaction. Well written stylistically, but couldn't put my finger on what was missing until I read that review in the Globe and Mail. There are too many great books to waste our time on the "meh" ones. I sometimes wish why "bestseller" lists could be somehow updated with the sales stats offset by those buyers who suffered from buyers' remorse once the book had been read. Might be a topic for a post:)
      I also found the Enright book a bit slow in the middle, and a bit disjointed, but that was outdone by its brilliance, IMHO. I'll be interested to hear what you thought of the latest Donna Morrissey.

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  5. Firstly , thanks for recommending Clara Callan , I enjoyed it so much & have sent for another of his books . As for books about the family , fiction - I like Anne Tyler & Penelope Lively plus I enjoyed I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith . Family memoirs , hard to choose as I read a lot of them , but Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shane Cunningham was great , as was Don't Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight by Alexander Fuller , Dodie Smith's first book of autobiography , those crazy Mitford sisters of course & the weird family of David Sedaris in Corduroy & Denim . As you can see , nothing too heavy & I'm not keen on too much angst / suffering .
    Wendy in York

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    1. Oh...I love Penelope Lively as well. She is a fabulous writer. Especially in the way all her books are about "ideas," but are still well written and entertaining. Of course, I love everything Mitford as everyone who reads here knows:)
      I haven't read Dodie Smith...but I probably should. As I said...my pencil is poised.

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  6. I look forward to reading The Green Road after this post. Thank you, Sue! -Linda

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    1. Hope you enjoy it, Linda. It's not a perfect book...especially structure-wise... but really struck home with me. Particularly Dan's experiences during the height of the Aids epidemic in New York.

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  7. The eggs in a nest while speaking of family is ingenious. I always look forward to your book reviews.

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  8. I read The Nest and didn't like it at all! The writing was good, engaging, but it had no redeeming message. Like the author had no opinion. Just kind of: "life sucks". I know life sucks for many people, many times because of their life choices but want to read a book that leaves me with at least a ray of hope.And agree with the statement it was all about "first world problems".

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    1. You're right...engaging to a point..and then you think, "What's the point?"

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  9. Thanks for this review. I've been hesitant to read The Nest for this very reason...it sounded annoying. I tried to read Fates and Furies and gave up after a few chapters. Similarly, I didn't attempt The Interestings. Whether or not they are the same type, their descriptions all seemed similar and I hate books when I don't like any of the characters. They remind me of Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, which I slogged through hoping it would improve (having LOVED Middlesex) and then kicked myself for time I can never recover. There. I feel better. Ha!

    As for books that I DID like: The Orphan Master's Son is a chilling vision of N. Korea and a very compelling read. I loved My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout - although her writing isn't everyone's cup of tea. One of my favorites this year was Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. And I read a couple of novels about immigrant women/families in '30s and '40s NY that I enjoyed: The Two Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman and Modern Girls by Jennifer Brown.

    Going to check out The Green Road. I always enjoy your book posts.

    --Laurel

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    1. I have never read Elizabeth Strout... sound like I should get right on that, though. I'm also noting the other recommendations. Thanks, Laurel.

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  10. One that I gave a 10 to, surprising my book club buddies, was Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys. I'm a really tough critic I guess...so they tell me. I sample a lot with Ibooks, but very few make it through to the Buy Book stage. I'm enjoying reading the posts here and will give them a go. But Ill stay away from The Nest. And how interesting about the double cousins. My husband's two brothers are married to two sisters. Each have three daughters. We have no children so no single cousins to add to the mix.

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    1. Another Elizabeth Strout recommendation. Thanks, Jill. I'm off to the library to see what they have.

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  11. I loved Ann Patchett's "Commonwealth" and "Lucy Barton" by Elizabeth Strout. Going to check out "The Green Road" now.

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    1. Thanks KSL. See earlier comments on how I need to read Elizabeth Strout:)

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    2. I'd start with "Olive Kitteridge" - fantastic.

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    3. Oh, yes! I also loved Commonwealth and will second Olive Kitteridge. Anything Elizabeth Strout or Ann Patchett go on my list immediately. :)
      --Laurel

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    4. The Nest - basically a beach read.
      Lucy Barton - loved but don't really see it as a family book as per this blog entry.
      Commonwealth - ticks all the boxes. Wonderful, meaningful with good prose that is still accessible.
      And Sue, have you gotten around to watching Gods and Monsters yet? It relates to a previous blog post but I don't want to say how.

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  12. I'll be the only one, so far, to comment about the Vogue issue! Yes, I bought it too, and plan to keep it around for a long, long time.

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    1. It's a wonderful issue, isn't it? Even the fashion lay-out editors seem to have striven for a new level of excellence.

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  13. I'm curious as to what makes this issue of vogue special. I've seen it in the past, as a magazine with the most ridiculous fashions featuring the youngest of girls in various stages of dress. Even my daughter stopped buying it. Would you please tell me what gas changed?
    I went out to the library last night to get an Elizabeth Stout book based on so many recommendations. Here goes....

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    1. Well, the articles for one. The "Up Front" article by Jeanne Darst was very good, well written, engaging. And after I read that I started noticing that the whole issue was a notch above what it had become lately. The fashion lay-outs are creative. Especially the one featuring Eddie Redmayne, in his role in the new J.K. Rowling film, is clever and really well photographed. I just thought the creativity of the fashion shoots, quality of the photographs, and the articles were all back to a standard that Vogue hasn't met for a while. Still has some ridiculous outfit combinations though.

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  14. Well,a lot of books and authors to read-I enjoyed all your recommendations -and a couple of commentator's as well
    I have The Nest on my e-reader for a couple of months,didn't start yet.
    Dottoressa

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    1. Just talked last night to a good friend who is a voracious reader. She said she cared so little about the characters in The Nest that she didn't even finish it. Let us know what you think, Dottoressa, when you read it.

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  15. Wondering if I can get the same Vogue issue here ..going to look out for it .. loved your Instagram video of the geese. We have Canadian geese on the river here ...maybe they've flown past your window! What a thought :)
    Rosie

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    1. That is a nice thought isn't it? If those geese could talk. Ha. Speaking of flying to England, Elizabeth and I are discussing our potential trip to England. There maybe be another two Canadians flying near you in the next year:)

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  16. Waiting for my copy of Green Road to be available at the library, I picked up The Last Waltz, also by Anne Enright. Sad, involving, exhausting, traumatic, what a writer!
    Jules

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    1. What a great description, Jules... "exhausting, traumatic" and wonderfully written.

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All comments, ideas, commiserations, questions, complaints... are most welcome.