An un­ruly fam­ily in con­stant cri­sis

The Prince George Citizen - - A & E - Jane SMI­LEY — Jane Smi­ley is the au­thor of nu­mer­ous nov­els, in­clud­ing A Thou­sand Acres, which won the Pulitzer in 1992.

The first thing that struck me when I was read­ing Claire Lom­bardo’s novel, The Most Fun We Ever Had was that when the par­ents of the fam­ily, Mar­i­lyn and David Soren­son, first get to­gether, they are liv­ing on Daven­port Street, in Iowa City, right about the time when I was liv­ing up the hill, on Wash­ing­ton. I might have passed them down­town, on Clin­ton Street, or sat across from them at the Mill Res­tau­rant, where my boyfriend worked as a bar­tender and a singer.

That is how straight­for­ward and re­al­is­tic Lom­bardo’s de­pic­tion of her char­ac­ters is – you could eaves­drop on them or look into their win­dows, and this is, in many ways, Lom­bardo’s sin­gu­lar achieve­ment in her de­but novel. Her de­pic­tion of how her char­ac­ters talk, how they re­late, how they form their fam­ily is so pre­cise that you must be­lieve in them, and you must also be in­ter­ested in them (which is a good thing, be­cause 532 pages is a lot to get through).

In 2016, Mar­i­lyn and David have four daugh­ters, all grown, and two grand­sons. Not ev­ery­thing is per­fect, but daily events seem nor­mal and man­age­able. And then there is the sud­den ap­pear­ance of a se­cret child, Jonah, age 15, the son of the Mar­i­lyn and David’s ap­par­ently well-be­haved sec­ond daugh­ter, Vi­o­let, who is hap­pily mar­ried to Matt, has two young boys and is ded­i­cated to or­ga­niz­ing their child­hoods per­fectly. The only per­son other than Vi­o­let who knows of Jonah’s ex­is­tence is the el­dest daugh­ter, Wendy, who was present at his birth. Jonah had been put up for adop­tion, but his adop­tive par­ents died in a car crash when the boy was four, and he has since moved from foster home to foster home. It is up to the Soren­sons to take him in, and not all of them are in fa­vor of do­ing so (if they were my neigh­bours in Lake For­est, out­side of Chicago, I would now be shak­ing my head in dis­be­lief).

Lom­bardo jumps around from char­ac­ter to char­ac­ter, which can be a lit­tle con­fus­ing. Her favourite is Wendy, a one­time rebel who still ad­dresses all of her rel­a­tives sar­cas­ti­cally, who still is iso­lated, who still is ir­ri­ta­ble, but who has an un­der­ly­ing im­pulse to­ward kind­ness. The most appealing char­ac­ter is Jonah him­self, who is amus­ing and ob­ser­vant but also a be­liev­able teen who can’t avoid trou­ble. David Soren­son is a doc­tor. Mar­i­lyn is a stay-at-home mother, the girl who was in col­lege and got preg­nant by mis­take, who some­times re­grets that she gave up the ed­u­ca­tion she had in­tended to get.

Lom­bardo is in­tent upon ex­plor­ing as much as she can about the Soren­sons’ lives – the chap­ters al­ter­nate be­tween present and past. Var­i­ous dra­mas play out over the year (the sec­tions are ti­tled Spring, Sum­mer, Fall, and Win­ter); oth­ers are ex­plored ret­ro­spec­tively, be­gin­ning in 1975.

The up­side of this is that Lom­bardo’s sense of drama is evoca­tive and riv­et­ing. When she means to shock or frighten the reader, she does. One of her tech­niques is al­most con­tin­u­ous di­alogue, and the Soren­sons aren’t typ­i­cal ret­i­cent Mid­west­ern­ers. Per­haps the daugh­ters, as mil­len­ni­als, sim­ply as­sume that con­stant use of the work “f---” is standard, and per­haps the fam­ily shares an edgy sense of hu­mour that oth­ers read as hos­til­ity. But the down­side of one cri­sis af­ter an­other is that the reader might re­coil from the on­slaught – there never seems to be a time, over 40 years or so, when life just moves along in an or­di­nary way. Even Mar­i­lyn and David’s ap­par­ent, steady love for one an­other isn’t peace­ful. If we had been neigh­bours, I would have been sin­cerely afraid of one of my chil­dren mar­ry­ing into this fam­ily.

A novel has to have a plot and a few mys­ter­ies the nar­ra­tive must build to­ward. Lom­bardo’s are mys­ter­ies of char­ac­ter – what did it feel like for Vi­o­let to have that child, and for Wendy to be the one to hold it and then give it up? Why is Wendy liv­ing by her­self? Who was that col­league that David found him­self at­tracted to, and what was the na­ture of the at­trac­tion? How will Liza, the third daugh­ter, deal with her depressed hus­band and her preg­nancy? Will Mar­i­lyn and David find out Gra­cie’s se­cret (Gra­cie is the youngest of the four girls by half a gen­er­a­tion, ob­ser­vant and some­what spoiled), and when will her mother stop calling her “Goose”?

The mys­tery is not whether the mem­bers of this fam­ily will fi­nally con­nect, but how. Per­haps the clue is that at one point, Jonah re­flects: “If this fam­ily had taught him any­thing it was that peo­ple could get mad at each other and then make up again.”

The Most Fun We Ever Had is an am­bi­tious and bril­liantly writ­ten first novel, some­times amus­ing and some­times shock­ing, but its un­re­lent­ing na­ture and lack of con­text is off-putting. The Soren­sons seem to live in Iowa City and Lake For­est with­out be­ing aware of their sur­round­ings. If they were my neigh­bours, I would sug­gest they get out of the house and take a walk around the neigh­bour­hood. If they saw the big­ger pic­ture, they might be able to re­lax.

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