Archive for the ‘dysfunctional families’ Tag

The Never-setting, Always-rising Sun   Leave a comment

In The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein, the never-setting sun has such a significant role that it’s practically a character alongside almost-18-year-old Yasha and 21-year-old Frances. These are not star-crossed lovers; in fact, they’re quite lucky. Their story begins with the two in New York City. They don’t meet until circumstances put them on a small island in the Norwegian Sea near the Arctic Circle.

Initially, the chapters alternate between Frances and Yasha’s voices. Eventually, they merge into one. Dinerstein evokes a strong sense of place in the isolated far north as the two find each other. As with any love story, there are obstacles including dysfunctional families, complicated backstories and quirky sub-characters.

Frances leaves Manhattan for a Norwegian artist’s community. Yasha arrives soon after to fulfill his father’s dream. Perhaps the most engaging part of the narrative is the life Yasha and his father have running their bakery in Brighton Beach. This is something they’ve done since immigrating from Russia 10 years earlier. Yasha’s mother, Olyana, was to join them; years pass and the family is never reunited.

Still, Olyana is among those in the quirky classification (it’s actually a long list). She’s an important part of the story, not only because she’s the mother of a protagonist but because of her lengthy absence as such. Meanwhile, Frances has family issues of her own. Among other things, her eccentric parents are separating.

Dinerstein injects humor with captivating prose to create something more than a tale of young love.

The Sunlit Night
Not-quite-four Bookmarks
Bloomsbury, 2015
249 pages

Family Faultlines   Leave a comment

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson is exasperating and slightly intriguing. Camille and Caleb Fang are performance artists in the extreme. Their definition of art is to create irresponsible chaos amidst the realities of daily routines. The Fangs have children, Annie and Buster, who are used as props and/or unwilling co-conspirators. The kids, also known as A and B, have no interest in being part of their parents’ far-fetched ideas. Once old enough they leave home to pursue more traditional artistic endeavors: Annie is a film actress and Buster writes novels.

When the novel begins, however, both Annie and Buster are experiencing low points in their lives. Though resistant, they return to the family home. Wilson creates a palpable sense of anger and frustration on A and B’s part. This spills onto the reader. In a way Camille and Caleb are like the king who wears no clothes when they create their exaggerated scenarios, most of which are ill-conceived. It’s their children who wonder why no one else can see what they do.

Wilson combines a fair amount of humor, elements of a low-key mystery and the pathos associated with children who have been psychologically harmed and become adults who haven’t outgrown the affliction.

Unfortunately, the narrative doesn’t work. Too many questions arise making suspension of disbelief impossible. For example, if the Fangs are so successful as performance artists why aren’t they recognized? More importantly, why didn’t anyone call social services to keep Annie and Buster out of the fray?

The Family Fang

Three Bookmarks
Ecco, 2011
309 pages

Whining While Dining   Leave a comment


Most parents, whether with young children or those who remember when their kids were small, are familiar with meals being a time for whining and dining.  Herman Koch’s The Dinner applies the concept at a very different level.

In Amsterdam, where the story takes place, two couples meet one evening at an upscale restaurant. The novel is narrated by Paul who is unhappy about the location, the companionship and, ultimately, the reason for getting together. Paul whines, a lot. He, with his wife, is joined by his brother and sister-in-law. The dining establishment is pretentious and so is his brother, Serge. Paul’s lack of enthusiasm is understandable, although none of Koch’s characters are worth embracing.

Initially, Paul’s attitude seems justified. Serge comes across as shallow, and the food does sound haughty: “The ‘grapes’ were lying beside a deep-purple piece of lettuce, a full two inches of empty plate away from the actual main course — ‘filet of guinea fowl wrapped in paper-thin German bacon.’”

As the novel and meal progress, it’s evident that the story is less about the five courses than about Paul, in addition to his son and nephew. The latter are the impetus for the couple getting together; the parents share a lot of responsibility when it comes to dealing with a criminal act committed by their boys.

By meal’s end, what has been served are layers of rationale that demonstrate how far some parents go to protect their children. Thankfully, there’s no to-go box for this repast.

The Dinner
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Hogarth, 2012
292 pages