Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"The Believers" and "A Perfectly Good Family": Two Novels about Families

I have a small backlog of novels to report on, so here for a change I will give just a short (even shorter than usual!) summary of two of them that, despite very different settings, have common themes of families after the death of parent(s), and the squabbles and yet love expressed by the very diverse adult children in each case. First, “The Believers” (Harper Perennial, 2008), by Zoe Heller, tells the story of what happens when leftist lawyer Joel Litvinoff has a stroke, goes into a coma, and eventually -- but only after a long, drawn-out time in the hospital -- dies. His feisty (okay, sometimes downright mean and rude) wife Audrey and his three very different adult children (with very different beliefs, thus the title) are both drawn together and divided. The characters are understandable and very fallible, and sometimes not very likeable (I have discussed the topic of unlikeable characters several times, most recently on 8/12/16). There is much angst, family drama, and interpersonal strife. The city of New York is not only the setting but a kind of additional character in the novel. Second, “A Perfectly Good Family” (Harper Perennial, 2007), by Lionel Shriver (who is, by the way, a female writer), is also about a family drawn together and yet separated by the death of parents, in this case both parents, also lefties but of a more liberal stripe. There are also three adult children who live very different lives but now have to make decisions together, especially about their parents’ grand historical house. Sell it? Share it? Or…? As they gather in the house to take care of their parents’ financial and other matters, and to decide about the house, all the old childhood differences and dramas, stemming from their very unlike relationships with their parents, resurface. In this case the setting is North Carolina, a very different background than the New York of “The Believers,” so there is a little bit of the heaviness of Southern history, and a touch of Southern Gothic atmosphere, as a backdrop to the story. The strength of both these novels is the portrayals of the family dynamics, which definitely keep the reader’s attention. There are side stories in each, including descriptions of spouses and other characters, and revelations about good and bad behaviors, but the families, their histories, and their interactions are the main focus.

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