In Zailckas’ (Fury: A Memoir, 2010, etc.) debut novel, an unhinged matriarch drives a family into destruction.
The family is the Hursts; the setting, the Hudson Valley north of New York City. Father Douglas is an IT guru. Mother Josephine is a former academic. Preteen Will is home-schooled. Daughter Violet attends high school, and daughter Rose is in college. Perfect, on the surface. But Will has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and epilepsy—that is, if narcissist Josephine isn’t a victim/victimizer of Munchausen syndrome. Douglas, dream marriage turned nightmare, isolates himself with alcohol. Rose has fled, apparently dropping out of college to run away to New York City with a boyfriend the family’s never met. And Violet, passing through myriad valleys of teen angst, including sallekhana, ritual fasting to death, has been committed to Fallkill, a mental facility. After ingesting morning glory seeds, Violet supposedly injured Will with a knife while attempting to attack her mother. The narrative unfolds in chapters following Will and Violet, ironic since hospitalized Violet is more emotionally grounded than mother-smothered Will, brainwashed into seeing Josephine as perfect. Violet’s perception of the Hurst family’s breakdown grows as she interacts with fellow Fallkill patients Corinna and especially Edie, "ever the damage[d] scholar of psychology," a manic depressive college student with more insight into Josephine’s twisted psychology than the resident therapist, "Sara-pist." Violet, wounded survivor, recognizes that Josephine, all lies, manipulation and control, is "cat-woman crazy, fueled by sadism and bottomless need." When Violet, free from Fallkill and intent on slipping away to live with Rose, is confronted by Josephine, violence flashes, only to be followed by a melancholy conclusion that sifts through the debris.
No beach-read escapism in this novel, but rather a hall of mirrors reflecting chaotic maternal psychological mayhem reminiscent of Mommie Dearest or Push or Ordinary People.