After the brutish family patriarch has a heart attack, the surviving Tuchmans (mostly) gather at his deathbed, each of them struggling to make sense of their past—and come to terms with their present.
“He was an angry man, and he was an ugly man,” the novel begins, “and he was tall, and he was pacing,” and this is how we meet Victor Tuchman in the moments before he collapses. And so the family begins to assemble: Alex, his daughter, a newly divorced lawyer, arrives in New Orleans from the Chicago suburbs; his long-suffering wife, Barbra, tiny and stoic, is already there. His son, Gary, is very notably absent, but Gary’s wife, Twyla—a family outlier, Southern and blonde—is in attendance, with her own family secrets. The novel takes place in one very long day but encompasses the entirety of lifetimes: Barbra’s life before marrying Victor and the life they led after; Alex’s unhappy Connecticut childhood and the growing gulf between her and her criminal father—irreconcilable, even in death. It encompasses Gary’s earnest attempt to build a stable family life, to escape his family through Twyla, and Twyla’s own search for meaning. Even the background characters have stories: the EMS worker who wants to move in with his girlfriend who doesn’t love him; the CVS cashier leaving for school in Atlanta next year. The Tuchmans won’t learn those stories, though, just as they won’t learn each other's, even the shared ones. Victor is the force that brings them together but also the rift that divides them. Alex wants the truth about her father, and Barbra won’t tell her; Gary wants the truth about his disintegrating marriage, and Twyla can’t explain. Prickly and unsentimental, but never quite hopeless, Attenberg (All Grown Up, 2017, etc.), poet laureate of difficult families, captures the relentlessly lonely beauty of being alive.
Not a gentle novel but a deeply tender one.