This installment: three novels about family dysfunction (a “specialty” of mine). One with a galvanizing death, one mixing teenage angst and magic, and one about the trickiness of marriage. And they manage to entertain, despite.
The World Without You by Joshua Henkin
Nothing like the family gathering at the country home to stir things up, especially when it's also the unveiling ceremony for Leo, the youngest of 4 siblings who was killed on journalistic assignment in Iraq. The parents are splitting up, and each of the offspring has tsuris: fertility issues, anger, religious constraints. (Noelle, once the designated Bad Girl, is now an Israeli Orthodox wife with 4 kids of her own.) No one's a happy camper, though a peculiar deus ex machina in the form of the fierce 94-year-old matriarch manages to shuffle the distraught deck of conflicts with some positive results. How could I forget Thisbe, Leo's young widow, and young son Calder. Is she really still part of the family, as they profess, and does she want to be? Thoughtful, yeasty, and a leaven of absurdity. (But isn't that always part of the family mix by definition?)
Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
There are woods in Westchester and that's where miserable14 year old June flees when she needs solace, wearing vaguely Medieval garb and wishing she were back in time. Her beloved Uncle Finn is dying of AIDS in NYC and supposedly his mysterious partner Toby gave it to him. Or so says family lore. But Toby reaches out to June, surreptitiously, and they form an uneasy alliance. June feels abandoned by older sister Greta, who has her own problems. Her parents, both accountants, are busy--it's tax season. Finn's last painting, a portrait of the sisters, lies in a bank vault, and family members visit it periodically with some interesting results. This book is a fascinating mix of the familiar (teenage angst, homophobia) and the magical (that amazing teapot, Toby's flea circus, and is that howling really wolves?). Life can get surreal under stress. The message-- facing home truths, claiming one's true identity--is powerful and and it's an entertaining read as well.
The Forever Marriage by Ann Bauer
Carmen fell into a marriage in a feckless state when she was young. She knew she never really loved Joel, a mathematician, and was deep into an ongoing affair with Dan, a sexy librarian (yes, they exist...) when Joel dies of cancer. But predictably, his death doesn't bring immediate relief. The years together, the three children, deep connection regardless--no such thing as a clean break. Then Carmen gets cancer and everything intensifies and regroups in surprising ways. A good friend, her in-laws, her oldest son Luca, who has Downs syndrome, and Dan come through for her but what a grim, searing time they all experience. While the themes: Death, Cancer, Infidelity, might seem like ultimate downers, the book manages to entertain the reader and celebrate the human spirit. It's a paradox, a lot like the complex emotional tangles in the characters' lives. I loved it!
(This didn’t get posted, so here it is now)