The author of Hungry (stories: 1998) offers a listless first novel, an intimate, often claustrophobic-feeling fictional memoir about the death of a father, the lives of two edgy sisters, and their happily liberated dancing mother.
“My father is going to die today,” solemnly begins chin-up, clear-eyed daughter Alice. Now in her late 30s, Alice is visiting her New England family home to witness the death, coming at the end of a long coma. Childhood memories of growing up under a strangely will-starved, elusive teetotaling father come crowding in vivid flashback; then, after Alice and her sister Gwen, a hairdresser and party girl, cope with the death by going out and getting trashed with the home-care nurse, the sisters and their mother return to separate and lonely lives, each armed with strategies for muddling through—and with portions of the deceased’s ashes. Alice forsakes a comfortable boyfriend and a floating, futureless work schedule for salsa lessons; Gwen abruptly stops drinking, while the mother, who is English and a fan of ballroom dancing—though her husband never shared her enthusiasm, not even at their wedding—takes up with the next-door neighbor and enters dance competitions. In the meantime, no one claims to have loved their curiously bland husband or father, nor do they wonder what kind of life he may really have led. Torrey’s observations, however stark and pungent, labor under a kind of writerly feeling of being heavily orchestrated; and there is little action or suspense (except on the dance floor) to help impel things forward. Instead, portentous doses of sentimentalism seem intended to keep spirits sunk, as if the reader, like the mother, is expected to awaken from the deep sleep imposed by this joyless father three decades before.
Perhaps appealing to certain hip, stricken readers, but not to the many.