A rich moment in political history is distilled through its long-term impact on a disjointed Washington family.
It takes only a few sentences for the second novel from Olsson (Waterloo, 2005) to divulge its author’s roots as a reporter. Despite her Hollywood screenwriting aspirations, Helen Atherton narrates with the granular detail and on-the-fly analysis of a journalist born and bred in D.C., as Olsson was. Helen’s story is set partially against the backdrop of the Iran-Contra hearings, which ruined the career of her father, Tim, a midlevel player in the Reagan administration. When she moves home to help care for Tim after his heart attack almost 20 years later, Helen slips back into the familiar struggles of a black sheep and middle child. Olsson captures some sweet moments of reconnection as dad and daughter tiptoe around each other, but the more complicated and compelling relationship stews between Helen and her sister Courtney, a high school superstar who eclipsed her younger siblings until she fell off the rails senior year. Courtney’s tale of woe crisscrosses with Tim’s and several B plots centered on slimy guys (the Atherton women share a taste for them, if little else): most crucially the late Dick Mitchell, a friend and colleague of Tim’s, who behaved worse but fared better in Iran-Contra; and his stepson, Rob Golden, a former drug dealer who seduces both Helen and Courtney with his good looks and indifference. “In my family we hardly ever recalled our past to each other,” Helen notes. “We compartmentalized.” Olsson does the opposite in this affecting but tangled book, which takes long enough to sort itself out that it may lose you in the process.
Family politics as usual, if they’re usually a mess.