A family’s hopes, fears, loose ends, and fractures emerge during a few days in Manhattan.
Paul Essinger’s family gathers in New York to see him play in the U.S. Open. Parents Bill and Liesel fly in from Austin, where they have been teaching for some 40 years; she has recently published a memoir. Their oldest, Nathan, a tenured Harvard professor, comes with his two children. Paul’s older sister, Susie, an adjunct teacher, brings one of her two kids (the other’s sick) from Hartford, Connecticut. Jean, the baby and unmarried, flies in from London, where she works on TV documentaries. Completing the accomplished tribe are Paul’s partner, Dana, a former model who feels pressured by the visit’s “atmospheric intimacy,” and their son. (Two spouses can’t join the group this year.) Despite many markers of individual success, there’s a thread of dissatisfaction running through these 72 hours. Bill long ago chose family over career advancement. Susie did as well and is diffident about being pregnant again. Paul is unlikely to get past the Open’s second round; he’s mulling retirement. Nathan sees his peers rising into the realms of real power outside academia. Jean isn’t sure she can handle the guilt of wrecking a family in her affair with a married man. Markovits (You Don’t Have to Live Like This, 2015, etc.) offers little plot but well-crafted scenes that explore the chaos and affection, seams and separateness of large family gatherings—the disjointed conversations are especially fine. But his snapshots of Manhattan are too tidy, his characters' problems sometimes rarefied, such as choosing a restaurant or one’s words with the help. His novel recalls more than a few well-made yet not always satisfying Woody Allen films.
The writing and insight go far to making this a good book, but a less-privileged and more-challenging cast might have made it a better one.