A Midwestern family struggles to rewrite its flawed history.
The proverbial road paved with good intentions runs through the quintessentially Middle American city of St. Louis in this acute debut novel. After nearly 20 years on the faculty of wealthy private Danforth University, Arthur Alter remains a disgruntled non–tenure track engineering professor. Two years a widower, at age 65 he's entangled in a joyless relationship with a colleague, a German history professor young enough to be his daughter. His children, introverted Ethan and generous Maggie, still mourn the passing of their mother, Francine, a family and couples therapist, while they find themselves adrift in their own lives. Ethan's deep in debt in Brooklyn after having left his consulting job, and Maggie works at an assortment of undemanding odd jobs for her Queens neighbors. With his wife's income gone and his teaching load slashed, Arthur, notorious for his miserliness, now faces the prospect of losing his heavily mortgaged home in an upscale suburb. His financial bailout scheme involves inviting his children home for a long weekend and inveigling them to part with a portion of their inheritance from Francine, a generous bequest she bestowed on them while intentionally bypassing Arthur. The younger Alters' return goes anything but the way Arthur plans or the children expect. But amid the tragicomic misadventures that befall each of the family members during that visit, Ridker reveals how the roots of Arthur's tightfistedness lie in a well-intentioned, three decades–old effort to apply his engineering skills to solving the sanitation problems of rural Zimbabwe. Ridker meticulously peels away the scabs that have grown over the wounds of the surviving Alters, laying bare, with compassion and piercing wit, the long-simmering antagonisms that haunt both father and children. At the same time, he gently hints at a way forward for this decidedly imperfect, but oddly appealing, family.
A painfully honest, but tender, examination of how love goes awry in the places it should flourish.