I cried in this book. And just as I hardly ever laugh in books, I hardly ever cry either. I have read and enjoyed all of Anna Quindlen‘s books, as I find her incredibly good at depicting ordinary family life in America (far better than Jonathan Franzen). This is her best yet and the only one I have cried in when reading.
Anna Quindlen was a journalist before she was an author. She wrote a popular column for the New York Times and also won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. I think her background as a journalist enables her to write about the details of life in a sparse style than prevents it from being boring.
I’m not sure what it was that caused tears to come in this novel – the climax of the story is horrific, but I have read similar stories that haven’t caused me to cry. I think it was because Anna Quindlen so accurately portrays loss and loneliness in her main character, Mary Beth Lantham. (Could one get a more American name?) This is a loneliness that Mary Beth experiences in her marriage and an awful, gaping aloneness that she feels after the tragedy that happens to her family. This is a loss that she also feels before the tragedy; a loss caused her changing relationships with her husband and children as they all grow up.
Mary Beth has an ordinary life as a wife, mother, housekeeper and landscape gardener. The book starts with her describing her morning, how she wakes early as “it is the only time I can be alone. Slightly less than one hour each weekday when no one makes demands.” Anna Quindlen manages to make minutae of Mary Beth’s morning routine so readable; it’s not a list of things she does, it’s a rhythm that Mary Beth weaves through – moving shoes that are in the way, picking up the newspaper, feeding the dogs. A few pages later, Mary Beth says, “Laundry is my life, and meals, and school meetings and games and recitals.”
We all know these routines we do without thinking about them. My dog gets upset if I don’t follow them exactly each morning, which makes me feel silly on Saturday mornings because I have to go out to pretend to pick up the paper which we don’t get on Saturdays.
Mary Beth has three children – Ruby, who is about to go into senior high and younger twins, Max and Alex. She is very involved in their lives, worries about them, wants to know what they’re doing the whole time. They are normal children – they fight and bicker, they run late for school, they leave their clothes lying around. Glen is a normal type of husband, an ophthalmologist who eats breakfast and leaves for the office.
After her family leaves for the day, Mary Beth gets changed and picks up her staff for her landscaping business. She doesn’t only worry about her children; she also worries she’s not paying her Mexican workers enough. We all know people like Mary Beth; in fact, perhaps we mothers are like Mary Beth (although I suspect I worry even more than she does).
Yet through the comforting routines of their normal lives, there are undercurrents beneath the surface. Some small ones that just ripple, others that threaten to cause waves. One of the gardens that Mary Beth has just planted is vandalised, plants ripped out of the soil and thrown about; an unusual event for the safe, boring suburb she lives in. Ruby has had anorexia in the past – it seems to have been dealt with, but it stays behind the text, a hidden fact. Alex is the outgoing popular twin, sports and accomplished, while Max is quiet and withdrawn. The kids call him “Mute Max” at school. Mary Beth feels lonely in her marriage and sometimes cries without reason.
Ruby breaks up with her boyfriend, Kiernan, who is a good friend of the family, almost part of it. Her mother is upset and Kiernan’s mother even more upset, but Ruby is bored of him, finds him clingy and irritating. Kiernan still hangs around the family, though, because he is one of the few people that Max relates to and the tension between Ruby and him grows.
I can’t write further about what happens as it will spoil the read for you and diminish the painful beauty of the book. A warning to readers: this book might be about ordinary day-to-day life, but it is not for the faint-hearted. There is emotional pain in it that makes it difficult to bear sometimes, but I believe it’s well worth reading.