Much time is spent examining the relationships between spouses, siblings, parents and children and the bonds and resentments that define such relationships. There's a lot of things that go unsaid, and many whispered discussions and secrets. A lot of the story is built around Abby, a hippyish hands-on mother of four, a wife, a daughter-in-law. We see her whole life, out of sequence, but still, from her modest background, her courtship with Red's friend and then Red himself, her relationship with the original Mrs Whitshank and then onwards through life...When we first meet Abby she is in her 40s, stressing over a brief phonecall from Denny, the flighty and commitment-phobic prodigal son. She is fierce and assertive and vital. But we see her begin to deteriorate, her memory and her mind start to decay. Families, as a concept go on, even though they lose members all the time.
The book's other characters include Stem, a kind of modern day foundling adopted into the fold who grows into a dependable and protective man, his evangelical and well-meaning wife Nora, sisters Jeannie and Amanda, a joiner and lawyer respectively and various assorted husbands, children and dogs. The prior generation of Whitshanks feature too, Linnie and Junior, who seemed for all the world a happy and successful family, prospering from the opportunities that post-depression America had to offer. Naturally they had secrets and forgotten stories of their own- a scandal and an estrangement and all sorts of secrets that weren't well known enough to become legend.
I liked the sort of hazy, oppressive summer heat vibe that this book gives out, its drifting narrative that lazily winds its way through 3 generations and leaves some enigmatic blank spaces for the fourth. I like the suggestion that families are infinitely complicated, complex and different, and what seems normal to one family might seem absurd to another. The family in focus, the Whitshanks, consider themselves to have excellent taste, to always be the ones who reach out to those in need, reassuringly old fashioned. In reality they're fairly ordinary; they're wallowing in secrets and resentment and bitten-back harsh words that they could never actually say. They love each other unquestionably, but they don't seem to always like each other all the time. So normal.
I really enjoyed reading this, much more than I expected- I'd expected a domestic tale of romance, hardships and triumphs. Which I guess it was in places, but with so much more depth and nuance. I really enjoyed and understood its themes of family and legacy and the inevitable passage of time. I liked too how the recurring element of never being satisfied, of always wanting what a friend or neighbour kept rearing its head to just keep happiness at bay. I liked how even the most apparently perfect, wholesome families, with their wrap-around porches and their annual beach holidays have their secrets and their scandals, and that sometimes they're lost to history and forgotten...but it doesn't mean that it never happened. I really liked how the passage of time sort of roughs off the edges and redefines what's passed. It was a thought provoking book that dealt with undiagnosed mental issues in Denny, with his anxiety and his self hatred, with dementia and elopement and the anguish and loss of ageing, but it wasn't wholly about any of these issues. It's just about the random pot-luck of life and the assorted events and issues that arise in any and every family.
I was reminded in many places of We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (the social mobility, the three generation narrative, the dementia, the prodigal son with his detachment and relationship issues) but also the family that's normal until you dig too deep and lives in a beautiful house seemed to come from the same hazy summer memory stock as E. Lockhart's We Were Liars, and the family legend until it becomes fact reminded me of the first couple of chapters of Donna Tartt's The Little Friend. This was my first attempt at an Ann Tyler novel, and I'm certainly not averse to trying one of her other 19 works now I've enjoyed this so much.