Comic first novel about a Los Angeles family growing up over the course of 25 years: an amiable, rapid-fire, but regrettably flimsy look at the changing times.
Here they are, then, the Kelbows. Transplanted to southern California, Fanny gives birth to Andrew the same year Kennedy is elected, and Don begins to build a thriving law practice catering to the entertainment industry. Life is rosy amid the sunshine, upscale tract housing, and orange groves, and soon Andrew has a brother named Little Mike. With their growing family and prosperity, Don and Fanny acquire a once-a-week housekeeper named Pilar, who pops in and out of the narrative, mostly to comment on Little Mike, whom she pretends is her own (she and her husband being in her estimation too ugly to consider having children). Brenner’s anecdotal approach to fiction, in which each chapter comprises a single quick scene only a few pages long, eventually follows the Kelbows as they break the confines of their happy stereotypes for less happy ones. Don leaves his wife and children for his secretary, Little Mike becomes temporarily mute, and Fanny goes back to work, where she has an affair with her boss. In the ensuing years Fanny and Don both remarry in attempts to recapture their California fantasy, but their two golden boys, raised amid privilege and increasingly brown skies, falter. Brilliant as Andrew is, he can’t seem to get his career off the ground, mainly because he’s not quite sure what his career is. And Little Mike, charming and easy-going, has transformed his teenage predilection for drugs and drinking into committed alcoholism.
Spanning over 25 years, the novel creates a mini-time-capsule for the Kelbows and their Golden State ilk, offering a story that’s likable but never memorable. Brenner’s fine sense of black comedy isn’t enough to bolster the impact of her insubstantial characters.