An absent son and the events surrounding his fate form the core of a cool study in family dysfunction.
Bass’s first novel introduces the Ascher family, headed by Joe, a successful actor/playwright whose monstrous self-absorption impacts all the other members. Long-suffering wife Laura, herself an ex-actress, suspects her husband of adultery long before he eventually admits to an affair. Daughter Emily, suffering from an Electra complex, is desperate for her father’s attention. Son Thomas is the most balanced figure in the household, but he develops lymphoma. The book interweaves Joe’s material for a new play with telling scenes from the past and a 2007 “present” in which Laura is married to a kind new husband, and Emily, grown from a problem child into a difficult woman, is a lawyer engaged to Korean-American Clay. Her wish is to get married in the ruins of the family’s house in the Berkshires with Joe giving her away, despite their prickly relationship. While slowly exposing what happened to Thomas, Bass offers a few events but also many introspective passages and character-searching conversations charting greater or lesser levels of self-awareness. By the day of the wedding, a degree of tolerant harmony has been achieved.
Prolonged navel-gazing by not desperately appealing people dims a technically sophisticated debut.