Krugman’s melancholy debut novel explores parental legacies as it traces the life of a young woman from her father’s early death to the first glimmers of her own mortality.
Cass, attending college in the 1970s, is “the smart one” among her alcoholic father’s three daughters. She’s close to him in a way that neither Ruthie (the eldest, most practical sibling), nor Bama (the younger, “pretty one”), ever are. Cass often stays up late into the night to ensure that their father doesn’t set the house ablaze during his drunken stupors: “Never did he suggest that it might be safe for me to just go to bed,” she notes. “Never did he promise to be careful if I left him alone.” His recent back pain is revealed to be advanced cancer, leading to his rapid decline and death, and Cass struggles with dueling senses of loss and relief. While still grieving, she marries her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Byron, a narcissistic medical student: “he’s missing the piece that lets him experience other people.” Their marriage lasts only a few years; Cass remarries, raises her daughter, and negotiates relationships with her mother and sisters, whom she finds, by turns, to be both alien and essential. The bonds of family manifest in the novel’s overarching themes of illness and medical worry, as the author shows science advancing through the decades to the early days of genetic testing for hereditary disorders. Moments of joy are rare in Krugman’s depiction of life; even positive developments, such as Cass’ second marriage to a more loyal and caring man, are fraught with human complications and self-doubt. But he also offers threads of kindness and hope, especially in the deepening of Cass’ relationship with her sister in the wake of another family tragedy and in the strength that she instills in her daughter.
An honest, compelling depiction of a complicated family.