A lightning strike skews the trajectory of a family.
The opening of Zuravleff’s second novel reads like a case history straight out of the annals of Oliver Sacks. Owen, a psychiatrist who specializes in pharmacological solutions to childhood neuropathologies ranging from ADHD to Asperger’s, is feeding a parking meter with quarters when he’s struck by lightning. His burns and nerve damage will heal with time, but the most intractable effect Owen suffers, besides a tendency to blurt uncomfortable truths, is a sudden and unprecedented passion for all things barbecue. Wife Toni, a professional recruiter of university presidents, becomes Owen’s full-time caregiver, which thoroughly upends her hitherto upscale Washington, D.C., suburban routine. The impact is felt by their children, twins Will and Ricky, juniors, respectively, at Penn and Duke, and teenage daughter Brooke, a talented gymnast. Will, addicted to pills and casual hookups, comes even more unglued when his prized 10-speed is trashed by marauding drunken frat boys. Ricky, a “math and myth geek,” is involved in an unhealthy flirtation with a charismatic professor and her husband. Brooke, whose vocabulary prowess almost equals her skill on the balance beam, fully indulges Zuravleff’s penchant for variegated and ornate phraseology. Since her parents have been so preoccupied, Brooke has been unwilling to confess to them that her boyfriend has crossed a line from jealous to controlling and abusive. Toni is conflicted about her new role, in part since she suspects (correctly) that Owen is fantasizing about Will’s girlfriend, Kyra, and also due to her own close brush with adultery. The Thanksgiving feast, which Owen will prepare in his newly dug backyard pit, may be the occasion for the family itself to tumble into a much deeper hole. Although the progress of domestic entropy is minutely charted, Owen’s affliction, obviously intended as the infernal engine of family dysfunction, ultimately seems beside the point.
This worthy attempt to dramatize the extent to which randomness rules our lives is subverted by aimless storytelling.