Thursday, December 12, 2013

"Living to Tell," by Antonya Nelson

Antonya Nelson’s novel “Living to Tell” (Scribner Paperback Fiction, 2000) is all about family, family, family. An older couple, their three grown children, and two grandchildren all live in the house in Kansas in which the children grew up. They are slightly aware of the oddity of the situation, yet proud of being a close family, taking care of each other. But there are big cracks in the closeness. The son, Winston, the golden boy, has just gotten out of jail for driving drunk and accidentally killing his much-loved grandmother; his father can’t seem to forgive him, although he does not show his feelings overtly. The older daughter, Emily, seemingly so calm and competent, has had her walks on the wild side, but now is taking care of her two children very well without the help of her immature ex-husband. Mona, the third adult child of the family, is emotionally unstable, has attempted suicide, had an affair with her brother-in-law and now is having another unsuitable affair with another married man. The father of the three adult children, “Professor Mabie” as the retired academic is always called, struggles with missing his sick and then deceased best friend from work, Betty, along with worrying about all of his children. His wife, Mrs. Mabie, tends her family fiercely, yet has withdrawn in recent years, sometimes seeming more connected to her garden than to anything or anyone else. There are other characters too, but the core of the story is the five adults in the Mabie house. The ambivalent connections among the family members are perhaps manifested in the family name Mabie (maybe?). This is a curious family story: the family sticks together, yet sometimes does not trust each other. And Nelson dares to make the five main characters not entirely likable. The reader feels torn between pulling for the family and pulling away from them. Nelson also dares to leave us with an ambiguous ending. This is an author I have come to count on as always writing something interesting, something different, and this novel does not disappoint.

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