Showing posts with label sibling rivalry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sibling rivalry. Show all posts

Thursday, July 11


Julia Lambert relishes what seems like a perfect life at the start of Cost, the novel by Roxana Robinson. A college professor, landscape painter and mother, she strives to observe and appreciate details in everyday routine: “The extraordinary loveliness of the world, how it was infinite and generous in its reach, how it could be soft and glistening, tangled and dense, velvety and bright.” That beautiful life spirals out of control and the novel's pointed insights and exquisite writing offer a model for any writer hoping to analyze family dynamics.

The book takes on the character of a holiday get-together, a family of grown adults who have not seen one another in a while and must overcome the distances that have developed. There are competing interests among two sets of spouses and two brothers with multiple and abrupt points of view, lending a sense of urgency as the family endures a roller coaster of emotions and questions revolving around guilt, shame, longing and lost trust. Robinson has a knack for suddenly, casually dropping eye-opening details from the past with a sentence or two.

Another son brings his brother's addiction to Julia's attention while she entertaining her parents at her cabin in Maine. Before hearing about Jack's addiction, her chief worry is the cognitive deficiencies of her neurosurgeon father and once-competent mother and how “they were starting to seem like strangers.” Both parents have a glimmer of awareness and Katherine, the mother, reflects on her losses:  “The small hard, bright facts, like nails that should connect it to the rest of her life, were missing. The place where her memory had been was gone, blurrily erased, like a window grayed by mist. … This was happening gradually, as though pieces of her mind were breaking off and floating away, like ice in a river.”  Still, Katherine is intent on keeping her condition to herself while mourning the loss of self, thinking about “how few new things she would do, how many things she would never do again…. Her world had narrowed.”

Despite her dementia, Kathrine senses the family's divides - between her daughter and ex-husband, between her two daughters and two grandsons. She mourns the loss of a close connection with Julia and wonders why her two daughters do not get along. She had once hoped that her daughters' disdain for each other were a phase and might end, but the attitudes were entrenched. “Hostility in the family seemed like such a waste. But she’d learned years ago that she could do nothing to fix this.” She appreciates time with Julia despite the inevitable flaws. “One thing you learned as a parent was humility.” 

Julia’s beautiful life falls apart that summer, exposing cracks. Initially in denial about the severity of Jack's problems, she insists that the entire family must confront her son at the Maine cabin, hoping that a family intervention might bring Jack to his senses. She also reaches out to Wendell, her ex-husband who has since remarried – both had affairs before their divorce – and a sister whom she rarely sees. She relies on the older brother, Steven, to deliver Jack to the cabin while shoving aside any interest or discussion about that son's work as an environmental activist and plans to apply to law school. Julia keeps talking about “we,” noting “Once we start, I guess we can’t stop it” and Steven realizes he has lost all agency for the endeavor: “he understood they had become partners.” He cares about his mother, gently confiding his concerns about Jack and divulging his own history with drugs, a problem quietly conquered without the support or knowledge of the family. 

Julia strives to be loving and supporting but sees her life was separate. “When your children were small, you tried to conceal your doubts and fears, your pettiness and failures. You tried to be what they needed – strong and certain, pure and loving. Of course they learned quite soon who you were – weak, uncertain, impatient, ungenerous. There was nothing of your character they did not know. Though there were parts of your life you kept to yourself…. There were secrets that should die with people.” 

Two family members, both the elderly mother and the addicted son, have a tenuous grasp on reality. Katherine, while pleasant, is confused and refuses to admit her challenges. “It felt precarious but exciting to carry on like this, to engage, ask questions. She felt as though she were flying, out in the wind, tied to something below by a thread. There was a continuous risk that she’d be found out, the air currents might suddenly tip her to the earth.”  She feels sly, moving through what is a slippery sense of time and space: “The thing was not to pause. It was like walking a tightrope: never think about falling, never stop moving.” 

She panics about losing memory. “Who were you if you had no past? If you existed nowhere but in this room, right now?” 

Katherine’s husband, Edward, as a retired neurologist recognizes that the outcome for those diagnosed with either heroin addiction or dementia is bleak. He grieves his wife’s decline as she repeatedly expresses newfound shock after being reminded about Jack’s addiction.  “He felt as though a blazing mirror had been held up to him. It was as though his entire life was being reassessed by someone else. He was powerless to control it, forced to observe it.” 

He also finds himself grieving that he never took the time to understood his wife, her needs and dreams. “The ideas was a kind of shock, that there might be another, alternate view of their life together. He’d always seen himself as the center of things, moving across the landscape of their life like a roiling storm center on a weather map.” Belatedly, he finds himself wondering if Katherine “might have been at the center of another system, possibly just as strong, just as roiling, but invisible on his map.” He concludes, “Getting older, it was impossible to see things the way you’d always seen them before.” Once renowned in his field, Edward feels rudderless, “Which is what age did to you, it stripped you of what you’d had, of your presence in the world.” 

The family is not close and all members distrust attempts for closeness. Growing up, Julia and her sister, Harriet, were discouraged from showing feelings, and the latter questions why society values close family ties. “What if your family happened to be made up of people with whom you had little in common, whose company you didn’t enjoy? Why wasn’t your family equally to blame, for not being close to you?” Both sisters tend to blame their father, Edward, and Julia assesses him. “He let nothing go by. He had to correct the world.” 

The intervention leads to a stint in rehab and eventual failure. Wendell's fury grows with futile attempts to convince Jack to listen and acknowledge the seriousness of his problem. “The way he acts, not looking at us, not talking to us, not admitting what he’s done, as though he’s too cool to deal – he acts contemptuous of us. … He devalues himself, the whole enterprise of having him and raising him – he acts as though it was all worthless. He doesn’t care about any of it…. He’s contemptuous of everything we’ve ever done as parents.” 

The struggle overwhelms the family and Julia slowly realizes that her life will never be simple or content again. “The unbearable pathos of objects. It was so strange that they all looked just as they had yesterday, though everything around them had been caught up in violent change. It was like a neutron bomb: a huge detonation, shattering all the humans but leaving the objects intact.”

Jack’s trouble rapidly spins out of control during the novel, at great cost for Julia. By the end, Julia wonders if she shares her father’s domineering presence. The sisters regularly accuse him of not being generous but in the end, he alone extends generosity that can only partially cover the economic costs that Jack's addiction delivers to Julia.  

Stripped of denial, Julia accepts the circumstances of Jack’s life and her own role with resignation.  “She believed in nothing so simplistic or logical as a natural moral system, no abstract code meeting out judgment. She didn’t think this was a punishment for adultery, nor for poor mothering, nor for her many sins, accruing over the years to a sum that required, by some terrible accounting, the unthinkable payment.”  Beauty no longer distracts her or gives her solace and instead, “Humility lay over everything like a gray mist.” 

She tries not to blame herself, but then, “of course her fault. She was his mother.” 

Thursday, September 21

The ever-present past

In Beyond That, The Sea by Laura Spence-Ash, Londoners Reg and Millie Thompson disagree but ultimately decide to protect their daughter at the start of WWII, sending Beatrix to live with a family they do not know. The mother is less sure about this plan, sending the teen to the United States. and the couple frequently argues. Beatrix feels a distance: “I stopped being a child on the day war was declared,” she thinks. “And you both disappeared even as you stayed by my side.”  

The novel follows the connections between two families - the choices, mistakes, dreams and regrets. From all appearances, the Gregory family enjoys a comfortable life in the Boston suburbs with long summers on their own island in Maine, a home Nancy inherited from her wealthy parents. The father teaches at a private school, and the family lives on campus. Nancy always longed for a daughter and embraces Bea as her own, buying her new clothes, praising her schoolwork and anticipating every concern. There is no jealousy, and Bea gets along well with the two Gregory sons, William who is a year older and Gerald a year younger. This family relishes the guest, truly caring about her opinions, and the two boys compete for her attention. 

Maine in summer is one of the world’s gentle places with routines as steady as the waves beating against the shore. As war rages, the three children feel guilty about their good fortune, and each contributes to the war effort in small ways. Bea, the best student of all, understands her family cannot afford college. She especially feels guilty about her parents’ proximity to the war and also not missing her parents more as she falls in love with a new family and way of life that allows freedom and access to the natural world. Her guilt intensifies after her father dies in 1943, and the two boys respond in contrasting ways. Gerald asks what she thinks happens after death: “Do you believe in that stuff from church, about heaven and hell and all that? Or is it just over. Is your dad just gone?” At another point, William overhears her talking with her father in a local cemetery and, blunt like his father, retorts, “He’s not there…. He’s dead.” William, blunt and opinionated like the father with whom he clashes, long regrets his impulse to hurt. 

With war underway, the teenagers are uncertain about a benevolent God and struggle to accept religious teachings. Gerald confides he wants to believe and imagine Bea reuniting with her father. Likewise, he confides that all he wants in life is to return to the island summer after summer and be buried there. Bea understands. “To think that she could have lived her whole life and never seen this island. This place that feels like home.”

The war ends before the males are called to serve. Bea returns to London where she takes up work as a child care provider, remaining upset that her mother remarried before her return and restless about the limitations for her in Britain. She worries about William squandering potential as his letters switch from excitement over classes to parties and bars. After college, while William is in France, his father dies – severe wound for the entire Gregory family. Returning for the funeral, William takes a detour to London to visit Bea and admits that he has a pregnant finance. The two revive their romance, a feeble attempt to revive memories of idyllic childhood, and Bea’s mother arrives home early from a trip, interrupting the couple’s final hours together. During the brief encounter, Bea recognizes how neither fully understands the other’s goals or state of mind, and she muses “how difficult it is to know someone’s past.” And perhaps William could not understand because “she had let her past slip away. She had instead, become part of his world, of the Gregory world.”

Bea sees only a few hints of the William she once knew, admitting that she is at odds, too. “My favorite place? Maine. My favorite food? Your mother’s muffins. And yet here I am. This is my home…. I belong here and yet I’m in limbo, really, caught between two worlds. I can’t seem to find where I fit.” 

By his mid-thirties, Will finds himself stuck in a deadening job and a loveless marriage. He drinks to excess, wandering around beaches and dance clubs, watching others and wanting to warn them: “Enjoy this, he wanted to say. Try to stay in the moment. He wished he could be one of them, to still be in the place where everything seemed possible.” William, having lost all purpose, knows that an idyllic childhood does not guarantee happiness. 

Bea senses William’s darkness from correspondence. “He never said anything, specifically, but under and between the words, she could feel his uneasiness. Not unhappiness, per se, but a feeling that nothing was quite aligned. That the life he’d wanted, the one he’d expected, had failed to appear. It was as though that fire that had once been in his belly – his desire to be in the world – had somehow been extinguished. She wondered whether he’d ever been truly happy.”

William and the rest of the family remain a constant puzzle for Bea. “I just wanted – we all just wanted – you to be happy,” she says out loud, talking up to the blue sky.  Why is that difficult for so many people to achieve?”  

The novel’s chapters are brief – each told from the point of view of one of the parents, children or spouses but most often Bea and William – most ending with characters reaching new insight. Bea visits New York again seventeen years later, yet avoids reaching out to the Gregorys. That following Christmas, she sends gifts to the family and the clerk asks if she has family the States. “No, she starts to say and then changes her mind. Yes, she says, Yes, I do.” 

Millie, long jealous of Bea’s attachment to the Gregorys, accompanied her daughter to New York and gradually begins to understand the attraction. “There was something being there in America, that made Nancy come alive to Millie in a way she never had before. Her openness was a classic American trait, one that Millie had never quite believed. And yet here they were, all these Americans, being loud and friendly and willing to talk to you about almost anything.” Millie admits to admiring Nancy and admits that, had the tables been turned with war in the States, she could not have embraced a stranger’s child as her own. 

Millie and Bea slowly forgive each other with weekly walks in the park. “There’s something to be said for talking while walking. You don’t have to look at the person. You can keep your eyes on the path, on your shoes, on the landscape. And somehow that means that more gets said.” 

After William’s death, Bea attends his funeral and reconnects with Gerald. Nancy observes them together and thinks about how strange it must be for them without William. “Those summers in Maine, those few sweet summers when the three of them were thick as thieves. Those days that passed by far too quickly and that she can only remember snippets of now. The three of them, racing out to the dock, King following behind. Picking blueberries in the hills. Camping out in the woods. Late at night, the world quiet around them, the lights from the house reflecting in the dark sea. Oh, why can’t time be stopped in those moments. Why is it so hard to understand how fleeting it all is?” Desperate to connect with the past, she feels the “need to scramble back in time, to pull up old memories, to regret words, to re-create moments.” 

After finding love with a third husband, Millie feels secure enough to release Bea, and the newlyweds encourage Bea to attend William’s funeral. Bea confides that the Quincy house is “the place that feels like my home” and Gerald asks her to stay, to truly make it her home. Holding his hand, Bea responds, “Let’s take a walk, she says. Let’s take a walk.” 

William’s untimely death along with an incomplete tale from Bea – some might call it a lie, others would argue that the entire past need not be exposed – end the ruthless competition between two brothers. Gerald and Bea marry and repurchase the island home in Maine, presiding over another stretch of perfect summers with Nancy, their child and William’s children. It may be distressing to ponder whether we are each at our purest, our finest, during childhood. Still, this exquisite book on family relations has a happy ending, as Bea lovingly, naturally resumes the matriarch role for the next generation of Gregorys.