A brother and sister with unconventional childhoods grow into adulthood, with predictably quirky results.
Ava and Fred Robbins grow up under the tutelage of their parents, June and Neel, the latter of whom had established an experimental school in upstate New York in the late 1940s. Neel is 20 years older than his wife, and they both believe in a Rousseau-ian ideal of freedom for their children as well as for the students in their school. (In fact, the title of the novel comes directly out of a quotation from Emile, Rousseau’s novel of education.) As a consequence, both Ava and Fred grow up making major choices about their own upbringings. As a child, Ava’s best friend is Kitty, whose older brother Dennis becomes enamored of Ava when she’s a coltish 14-year-old, and years later they marry. Ava’s placid domestic life is severely disrupted when she finds out that Fred has been arrested on several charges involving the disappearance and death of a 12-year-old boy named James Ferebee, whose body was recently found. Counsel for Fred is an overworked and underexperienced public defender who can scarcely be bothered with the details of the case, including finding time to visit his client in jail and get his side of the story. Growing up, Fred had always been strange and alienating, exhibiting symptoms of Asperger’s or perhaps something further on the autism spectrum, though Ava can hardly imagine him as a killer. Through substantial flashbacks to their childhoods, adolescences and early adult lives, Ava is always looking to put the family narrative into some kind of meaningful whole, though Fred’s arrest and incarceration severely challenge this attempt to find coherence.
Cohen is finely attuned to family dynamics here, both the quiet inner workings of Ava’s successful marriage and her genuine bewilderment about Fred’s fall from grace.