A tapestry of settings and voices speaks of dislocation and grief in Sonnenberg’s ambitious debut.
Multiple narrators—both human and inanimate—relate the story of the Kriegstein family: father Chris, who escaped Midwestern dreariness for corporate stardom; mother Elise, whose genteel Southern childhood ended abruptly with her grandfather’s abuse; and their daughters, Leah and Sophie. Elise’s childhood home bemoans the desolation of losing its last resident, Elise’s elderly mother, Ada, to a nursing home—and the rift that arose when Ada accused Elise of “telling tales” about her grandfather. Chris’ parents, reluctant assisted living residents, comment on their son’s distance—emotional and geographical. From there, the narrators and points of view proliferate, ranging from deeply interior to collective and omniscient. During the first of Chris’ many international postings, to Hamburg, Germany, Elise, pregnant with Leah, blunders into a bizarre winter picnic with strangers, perhaps intended to symbolize her own frozen family life, past and future. Back in the States, left alone as Chris travels, Elise is unable to muster motherly feelings for baby Leah. As teens, negotiating a difficult adjustment to life in Shanghai, Leah and Sophie are most comfortable when they can escape the expat country club and American School for summer “home leaves” with their grandparents. Early on, visits to a family therapist, presented as scenes from a play, reveal that Sophie has died suddenly—though she is still very much present, especially to Leah. Sonnenberg is particularly adept at portraying the conflicting and ambivalent feelings associated with grief: anguish, guilt, even relief (on Leah’s part) that she no longer has to compete with her blonde, athletic younger sibling for her parents’ or boys’ attention. Since the nuclear Kriegstein family is the main focus, chapters featuring peripheral characters, though intriguing in themselves, serve only to distract.
The experimental form cannot, however, distract from the lucidity of Sonnenberg’s prose, which is notable for its stark honesty and sharply observed details.