“But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved one might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories—all that they take away with them. What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth.” (Ch.7, 248)
The book revolves around a Baltimore family and their house over four generations. Tyler has woven defining moments of each generation with flashbacks, giving us a story of a family that could be any of ours. The novel opens in the present, with Abbey and Red Whitshank. It’s Abby, a retired social worker; Red, who inherited his father’s construction and their grown-up children reader gets to know best as the family slowly disintegrates. Abby by far captures one’s attention and she is the glue of the family. She is this self-denigrating, self-aggrandizing embarrassment of a mother one hopes will never show up at the school function. She breathes down on her children’s necks.
The book begins and ends with the miscreant, Denny, the prodigal son, who calls home to inform his parents he’s gay. (He’s not.) He’s a college dropout, irregularly employed, and single parent. No one in the family can cope with his existence. His sister, Amanda, nails it, in a moment of exasperation, that she shall not be forgiven for “consuming every last little drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.” Denny complains his parents never paid him any attention, but Abby has always cared for him the most. Even Tyler has a soft spot for him, and she renders him more lovable than he is forgivable.
When Red has a heart attack and Abbey becomes dithery, the family converges to take over, but that ironically reveals fractures within the family and reignites old jealousies. The dutiful son Stem, who is not even a Whitshank by birth, moves in to care for the aging parents with his judicious wife Nora and children in tow. Denny’s sudden arrival arouses new tension and leads to brew of guilt and resentment. Abby and Red’s family is the bread and butter of the novel as this drama plays out, but Tyler digs deeper in the history.
The origin of the Whitshank house is how Tyler plays against the American dream, the dark side of which is the falsehood and its heart. The house was initially commissioned by a rich businessman, but Junior, Red’s father, who is hired to build it, set his heart on the place the minute he sees the blueprints, crafts it to his own preference and eventually acquires it by some mild chicanery. He was also entrapped by a teenage girl who bides her time and eventually becomes his wife. Junior’s daughter Merrick rises above her station and breaks into the high society—and a loveless, worn-out marriage. It was Abby, in her unflinching way, even at a young age, who confronts Junior that he resents his snooty neighbors but apes their ways.
This is the kind of novel that chronicles minor calamities and daily happenings that shape a family, any family. It deals with what makes a family at root: parental love and a sense of belonging. The parts on Abby and Red’s family are more tightly written and capturing than the others. But overall it is an absorbing read.
465 pp. Vintage UK. Pocket paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]