Baker’s debut novel, made up of 10 linked stories, traces the financial and emotional trials of a young family over the course of a decade.
In this unusual domestic drama, Kenneth and Jodi Bodine aren’t fighting, and their marriage is not crumbling. When quietly optimistic Kenneth lies to his wife, it’s not to hide a secret affair but because he’s lost his job over a morally gray quibble. While Jodi periodically reflects on Kenneth’s frustrating silence and worries about his lack of career ambition, she’s loyal, supportive and forgiving. When she pleads with him in the final story not to quit his sales position, she says, “Don’t you realize that you’ve had nine different jobs since I met you?” He replies, “Yes. And doesn’t that make life interesting?” Kenneth’s employment woes begin in 1991, when the recently wed couple settles into a D.C.-area home, expecting their firstborn child. Each of the subsequent tales, one per year up to 2000, shows Jodi balancing motherhood with her freelance editing gig and Kenneth constantly taking on new jobs, including work in construction, property management, and selling everything from cars to mattresses. In “Owen the Impervious,” the couple hosts Kenneth’s estranged but determined father, whom Jodi regards with increasing skepticism as his stay extends indefinitely. In “A Short Career at the Cathedral Arms,” Kenneth discovers that a homeless person lives in a hidden room in the apartment building he manages. The stories gradually culminate in the dawning of the Internet era, suggesting new opportunities but also greater challenges. Some stories, such as “One Sunday,” focus less on developing the Bodine bond, instead zeroing in on Jodi as she ponders “life and all its ancillary operations, questions and few answers.” Baker is an observant and entertaining writer, even when the subdued plot unfurls without high drama or overt tension. Her clean, direct style refreshingly portrays the tender side of a relationship that could have ended badly. It also effectively underscores the awkward discussions that nearly every family endures.
A fragmented but hopeful impression of family matters.