Orner anatomizes family relationships with precision in a novel that spans three—and touches on four—generations.
At the center of the author’s examination is Alexander Popper, a fiction writer manqué (he tries in vain to write a “good, sad story”) and reluctant law-school graduate who winds up handling misdemeanor cases for the Cook County Public Defender. His lack of professional accomplishments does not, however, define him as much as his failed relationship with Kat, whom he meets at the University of Michigan. Although they never get married, they eventually have a daughter, Ella. We also learn of Alexander’s exceptional brother, Leo, and their parents, Miriam and Philip, whose unhappy relationship, owing to Philip’s cheating with a family friend, blights Alexander as well as his mother. (Miriam is forced to take temporary jobs such as census taker and lackey in a real-estate office.) And going back yet one more generation, Orner introduces us to Seymour and Bernice. They work their way to prosperity and then see it decline because of some morally questionable business practices on Seymour’s part. These are profoundly unhappy people, trying to make it yet living their lives in such a way as to make unhappiness inevitable. Orner approaches his narrative with a nonlinear chronology, moving back and forth from Seymour’s wartime notes to Bernice, to Alex’s adolescent peccadilloes, to Alex’s letters to Ella. The result is a masterful, multifaceted novel.
Readers will find both love and shame in abundance in Orner’s teeming fictional world.