A deep dive into the dysfunction of an extended family.
In her first novel, de Andrade (Memories of Lili, 2014) follows the travails of Michelle, a Montréal woman whose contented life begins to disintegrate when her brother, Joe—who lives across the street from Michelle’s nuclear family—hires a young nanny to help care for his children. Before long, the nanny, Ermelita, nicknamed “Lita,” stirs up conflict in his fraught marriage and attempts to turn his children against their mother. Despite Michelle’s efforts to keep the peace, Lita’s manipulative power plays and Joe’s callous indifference result in complex turmoil involving Michelle’s extended family. What follows is a crushing litany of decadeslong strife, which de Andrade spares no detail in describing. Readers experience every ordeal, from recurring fights over the logistics of celebrations (“The following Saturday, Claudia would be with her mother, so Lita chose Friday for Michelle to prepare the combined birthday dinner”) to the minutiae of Joe’s custody battles. Michelle also unearths long-buried memories of her childhood with Joe, and her struggles to process these traumas in light of the family’s ongoing discord provide the story’s most compelling conflicts. Although it goes against her tendency to accommodate others’ wishes, Michelle slowly comes to view Joe’s family as the “little sect” of the book’s title: a brainwashed cult built around Lita’s dangerous desire for control. The author’s devotion to documenting every facet of the family’s life makes for an odd reading experience; many of their troubles are repetitive and seem to serve little narrative purpose. Such a lack of progress may mirror the frustrations of real-life families, but it also prevents the story from developing much momentum. The author’s reliance on detached description over action or dialogue further robs Michelle’s story of tension. In particular, she paints the characters’ emotions and motivations in broad strokes that keep them from coming fully alive: “Joe’s provocative ways always led to an altercation with Mother and ended in a heated dispute.” Still, Michelle’s story remains a striking reflection of the dark side of family dynamics—hardly entertaining but vivid nonetheless.
An observant familial portrait bogged down by extraneous detail and a frustratingly circuitous plot.