Three siblings balance family dysfunction and love in Olevin’s (The Breath of Juno, 1996) new novel.
Real families don’t function in vacuums, and during every crisis there are a dozen other smaller crises that need to be handled simultaneously—and are usually ignored. When baby sister Florence jumps off a bridge, her brother Peter must temporarily abandon the ferocious pace of his New York brokerage to fly to Seattle and help. Big sister Sara is used to managing Florence—the family division of labor has Peter responsible for their footloose mother—but this latest misadventure, an apparent suicide attempt, may signal an escalation in the family’s problems. Meanwhile, Peter can’t help but notice Sara’s rundown house; post-divorce, she seems resigned to poverty and a solitary life. At the same time, Florence takes note of Peter’s agitation, which the Xanax barely contains and the market crash of 2008 only exacerbates. Told over the course of an eventful year, this drama subtly and accurately examines the ways in which families interact. Alternating among voices, with chapters headed by each narrator’s name, the book reveals the layers of denial and habit that sustain patterns established in childhood. While all three characters come to life, it is Florence, with her delusions, who is the most intriguing. Olevin inhabits her fear—of the “black hoods,” of losing herself—with an artist’s touch, and her short-lived romance with Dennis, another troubled soul, is heartrending. As the cumulative crises break through each character’s reserve, we come to see that each is in crisis, a body in motion. Jarred from their accustomed paths, each takes risks and begins to grow. The resolution isn’t fairy tale perfection and shows how flawed humans may be able to find a fragile peace.
This true and telling novel is optimistic, realistic and sensitively told.