Seemingly everybody on the class ladder scrabbles for a definition of human decency in the latest from Thompson (The Year We Left Home, 2011, etc.).
The novel opens with a penetrating vision of a lower-middle-class family sinking fast. Sean is a divorced, out-of-work handyman who’s about to lose his Bay Area house and his grip on his teenage son, Conner; when Sean decides to meet a woman via Craigslist, the attempted one-night stand only leaves his body broken in a highway wreck. The bad news doesn’t stop there: Nearby, divorcee Art is forced to take in his teenage daughter, who’s become a disciplinary nightmare back in Ohio after witnessing her half sister’s murder in a school shooting. After a stint of petty thievery, Conner does odd jobs for a wealthy widow, Mrs. Foster, who wants to do something with her late husband’s largesse. So, she taps her nurse, Christie (also Art’s neighbor), to run a nonprofit with a vague purpose and name: The Humanity Project. The worlds-in-collision setup is contrived, but Thompson’s handling of it is superb and unforced. She wants to explore how much of our bad behavior, from lousy dates to murder, is hard-wired, and in Sean and Conner, she exposes how much our actions are grim functions of economic circumstance. Yet this book isn’t preachy, and Thompson has a knack for rendering characters who are emotionally fluid but of a piece: A daughter of Mrs. Foster’s who’s outraged at her squandered inheritance is selfish, yes, but her despair about a nonprofit’s ability to repair humanity is legitimate. Thompson caps the story with a smart twist ending that undoes many of the certainties the reader arrived at in the preceding pages.
A rare case of a novel getting it both ways: A formal, tightly constructed narrative that accommodates the mess of everyday lives.