Death jostles a diverse group of Californians but it’s the life force that prevails here.
Los Angeles, 2001. Edith is a well-heeled white Angeleno. Her beloved second husband Charlie dies in her arms after a long illness. The next morning, she watches on television the collapse of the Twin Towers, but the catastrophe doesn’t amount to a hill of beans next to her own loss. Her reaction sets the tone for a novel that elevates personal pain and joy above collective anxiety and jingoism. On to 2007. The war in Iraq drags on; everybody is edgy. Edith, a lonely widow, is a volunteer receptionist at UCLA Medical Center, where her son, Phil Fuchs, is a dermatologist. Phil has problems at home. His whiny wife Felicia is worried about aging. Daughter Eloise is an obnoxious brat. Vernon, 11, for whom Phil feels a “terrible, soft, embarrassing love,” is acting up like crazy. At the hospital, he’s chosen to join a top-secret team organized by the military to treat future bioterrorism victims; he is refused permission to leave the program when he becomes disaffected. In the reception room, two families are on tenterhooks. The Barclays and their daughter Andrea are hoping for a kidney for her father, a university lecturer, who is fading fast. The other family are recent Chinese immigrants; an uncle is on a respirator. Danny has seen Andrea in undergraduate poetry class. Almost before they know what’s happening, they’re making love in the campus Botanical Garden; mutual desire is that strong, and it keeps death at bay. Phil’s world comes crashing down when he finds Felicia flaunting her lover Larry (“in security”) at her 40th birthday bash. Divorce looms, and prospective stepfather Larry is threatening Vern with military school. Disregarding a hospital emergency summons, Phil acts fast to save Vern and himself; it’s a gloriously improbable plan, but it works.
Uneven but never dull, See’s seventh (after The Handyman, 1999, etc.) throws an idiosyncratic light on our contemporary age of anxiety.