Viewed through the familiar lens of a chaotic Thanksgiving Day reunion, a family’s history of disappointment and struggle is brought violently up-to-date.
Spanning three generations and a mix of ethnicities and incomes, Vanderbes’ second novel (Easter Island, 2003) reaches for social and historical breadth as it assesses individual efforts to make meaning out of life and lineage. Hosting the turkey dinner is Ginny Olson, the unmarried, 35-year-old academic of the family who has given up on relationships and recently, impulsively, adopted a mute Indian child. Her brother Douglas, who has just lost a fortune in the construction business, arrives with his no-nonsense wife Denise and three children. Also in attendance are Ginny’s parents, Eleanor and Gavin, whose marriage is another story of shame and failure: Gavin was a gilded youth whose service in Vietnam blighted his career and personality while Eleanor has acted as a steadfast, unquestioning homemaker. Ginny’s unreliable stove forces the family to decamp to Douglas’s house, unaware that a couple of poor teens have broken in. Despite tragic-comic moments, the mood is melancholic as Vanderbes sensitively surveys static careers, unhappy wives and fearful adults pressured by stressful times and expectations, culminating in an explosive blast of what-goes-around-comes-around dark irony.
Excessive back story overshadows forward momentum in a compassionate though schematic portrait of middle-class characters in crisis.