A low-key but affecting portrait of a family whose admirable head has one fatal flaw.
Luther Albright is a responsible man. That shows in his work as a highly respected civil engineer in Sacramento; it shows in the shipshape house he built from scratch in the Sacramento suburbs; and it shows in his love for his close-knit family. Yet his story begins: “The year I lost my wife and son . . .” Lost: the ominous, ambiguous word hangs over the seemingly inconsequential episodes to come. The immediate cause of the unraveling is 15-year-old Elliot’s need to test limits. At school, he’s been given a research assignment on an ancestor, and he picks Luther’s father, whom he never knew. This causes acute anxiety for Luther, who has never properly confronted his feelings about his father’s crude provocations of his sweetly long-suffering mother. The missteps of one generation are about to be repeated. Elliot asks searching questions about his grandfather; Luther stonewalls; Elliot ups the ante. He shaves his head (a radical move in 1983) and displays a girl’s panties in his bathroom. Luther conceals his alarm, reacting positively or not at all, inviting further trouble, while failing to share his anxieties with his wife, Liz, thus alienating her as well. “His love meant too much to both of us,” says Luther. Bezos’s finely calibrated first novel seethes with ironies, the cruelest being that the sensitive, upright Luther destroys his family as effectively as his blundering father had done before him. “My crimes of emotion,” Luther calls them. What he means is his failure to achieve a depth of intimacy with his needy son or insecure wife. One blast of honest rage at his son’s later antics might have set everything right in a way that his flat “I forgive you” can’t.
There are no melodramatic excesses here, just the painful realization that a love that evades past injuries and present affronts isn’t quite enough. A self-assured, distinguished debut.