Friday, January 9, 2015

"The Land of Steady Habits," by Ted Thompson

I finished reading Ted Thompson’s novel “The Land of Steady Habits” (Little Brown, 2014) a few days ago, and since then I have been pondering what I think about it, and how to write about it. What I keep coming back to is gender issues. The novel is not “about” gender, but to me the main character deals with an intriguing mixture of gender concerns. Anders Hill, in his early sixties, suddenly decides that after working hard all his life, he is going to retire from work, leave his wife of forty years, buy a condo, and enjoy his freedom. The classic male midlife crisis, right? But somehow his “freedom” is not as satisfying as he thought it would be. And there are complications – financial, familial, social, and emotional. He still has to deal with some typically “male” responsibilities, and at the same time he worries about more stereotypically “female” emotional and relational issues, such as missing his wife and being jealous when she starts dating an old friend. Of course it is a given that these concerns are not so easily categorized by gender (thank goodness!), and I don’t want to deal in stereotypes, but in fact in literature the focus is often more on one or the other of these. The setting in suburbia, and the balancing of work and home concerns, echo Rabbit and even – to an extent – Babbitt. Anders is also an example of a fairly common type of character in contemporary American fiction, especially in novels by male writers: a crotchety, complaining middle-aged or late middle-aged man whose genuine emotions and questions are made slightly foolish by his self-preoccupied, whiny persona. The story is engaging, tracing the arc of Anders’ and his wife Helen’s lives from the time they met in college to the present. Their college friend Donny is a major character too, as are Anders’ and Helen’s two sons. There are problems, there is unhappiness, but there is also much connection. Still, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, what I find perhaps most interesting about this novel is the questions of gender that it indirectly raises.
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