A fractured family seeks a way out of a series of crises in this debut novel.
Tom Holder is a tenured professor of philosophy employed by Barnes College in Maine. He likes teaching but not writing and churns out “just enough pedagogical crap to maintain tenure.” He has recently completed the first draft of a book written with the intention of “lancing Trump with a sharp-edged pen” and pissing off “people in high places.” The latter objective is achieved immediately, as the work’s contents land Tom in the crosshairs of the “loathsome” college president, Amos Whitely. Meanwhile, Tom’s wife, Hannah, is discontent with being a stay-at-home mom. Before Tom received his tenure, she was the main breadwinner, working in a bank in Boston in a management training program. Her prospects of becoming a professional were derailed with the move to Maine, where she grew resentful of Tom’s success. Their children, Madison, 14, and Dillon, 15, have their own problems. Madison is the target of a homophobic slur in high school. Meanwhile, sophomore Dillon is brought home by a police officer after being caught drinking. The status quo of the family is further disrupted when Hannah decides to take the LSAT with the hope of returning to Boston and attending law school. Tom also learns that his estranged father, whom he has not seen in over 20 years, has been diagnosed with cancer. As pressures build, Tom and Hannah find their marriage under considerable strain.
The story is poignantly recounted in intimate alternate chapters from the perspectives of Tom and Hannah. Moot writes with a succinct eloquence, creating a cast of psychologically plausible characters. For instance, when Hannah learns that Madison has been called a “dyke” by a boy at school, the intensity of her shifting emotions is palpable: “Digest, process, breathe. Calm, thoughtful mother. No, fuck that. Rage. Protect your daughter. ‘I’m calling his mother.’ ” The chapters written from Tom’s point of view are sufficiently distinct in tenor to convince readers that the narrative is being delivered by a different person. Tom is contrastingly self-involved and self-pitying: “I rolled out of bed, fed Bart and let him out. A man’s best friend. A man’s only friend. I put on a pot of coffee and showered while it brewed.” Moments such as these capture an everyday routine with which most readers will be familiar, and the difficulties faced by the Holder family are easy to relate to. The reasons behind Tom’s becoming estranged from his father add an extra element of intrigue to an already strong plot, and Moot’s examination of family secrets and teenage rebellion proves thought-provoking. On rare occasions, Tom’s narrative feels stiff and contrived, as though it has been lifted from an academic study, although this may be an intentional reflection of his professional diction: “Religion supplies answers for some. It soothes our existential anxiety by reassuring us that there is a higher power with a larger plan.” This does not detract from a carefully conceived and sharply written novel with characters that are impossible not to root for.
A compelling family tale with convincing, psychologically perceptive writing.