Moving backward over 25 years, a series of verbal snapshots chronicle the history of a middle-class Catholic family from suburban New Jersey: a flawed but promising debut.
The Mahoneys are introduced in 1997 as they individually prepare to gather for Christmas at the beach house where their retired parents now live. Pat, who sometimes feels “misplaced” in his own home, and Liz, whose private longings have never quite been realized, are lovingly drawn but seem prematurely aged for a couple barely in their 60s. Thirty-five-year old Kate, the emotionally fragile oldest sister, takes medications that dull her senses but keep her sane and securely married. Second sister Patty, a single Manhattan doctor who’s just quit drinking, worries how the family will react when she reveals her alcoholism. Brother Sean flies in from London, where he’s a chef. Baby sister Nora is a large-animal vet who also happens to be happily gay. Norris jumps back five or so years at a time to trace how the siblings reached their present state. Kate struggles with recovery, breaks down for the first time, and shows intense sensitivity and artistic promise as a child. Brainy Patty verges on self-destruction as a reckless lush, drinks as a novice pediatrician to escape the trauma of dealing with dying children, juggles her adolescent good-girl facade with a secret life of drugs and sex, wins her father's favor with her bookishness. Nora falls in love with another woman, comes to awareness of her sexuality in adolescence, plays her role as family baby for all its worth. Sean, perhaps acting as the author’s stand-in, remains more an observer than a player over the years, defined largely by his reactions to the others.
Norris beautifully captures the intimacies of family life, but his self-consciously literary design only highlights the predictability and lack of genuine drama here.