Death brings families together

Love All. Callie Wright. Holt. 228 pages. $25.
Love All. Callie Wright. Holt. 228 pages. $25.

In Callie Wright’s promising debut novel, the Cole and Obermeyer families have suffered a loss: presumed matriarch Joanie Cole has died in her sleep next to her husband Bob. This death has brought them together under one roof. As their separate lives collide, needs and attitudes about love and family seem to break them open, rendering emotions and old wounds more raw and accessible than they’ve been in years.

Yet as seamlessly as Wright delivers the story from multiple engaging perspectives — Bob, the once rakish octogenarian; Hugh, the preschool head and newly adulterous husband; Anne, Bob’s daughter, the distant lawyer yet loyal wife and mother; their children: Teddy, the high school baseball star; and Julia, the tennis player navigating a teenage love-friendship triangle — this narrative volley also prevents the full development of the novel she has concocted.

The story of family dynamics is not unfamiliar, set in 1994 Cooperstown, N.Y., the town once known for the scandalous based-on-real-life novel The Sex Cure that rocked the real Cooperstown in the 1960s and, as Bob’s narratives reveal, altered his and Joanie’s marriage. But that’s surface. The novel is all about the characters, supported by Wright’s capable and often poignant prose.

Hugh, who has never quite charted his own course, “was on the conveyor belt of September to September and he was afraid to get off.” Bearing dual weights of congestive heart failure and being a widower, Bob “was straddling two worlds, and occasionally he seemed to slip into the gulf between them.” The fabricated language shared by Julia and her best friends Sam and Carl is an enjoyably inventive way to illuminate their relationship: “At the heart of our three-way union was the language we had created, our mother tongue, but with one thousand words at the ready, I still couldn’t tell Sam that I had missed him while he was gone.”

But some perspectives are more effective than others, especially Julia’s. She gets four chapters to Teddy’s one and everyone else’s three. Hers is the only segment delivered in first person, and she’s the only modern character influenced (however subtly) by The Sex Cure, discovered under Joanie’s mattress after her death. Julia also voices many of the book’s themes, which Wright might have better amplified overall; for instance: “[H]ome wasn’t a place, really; it was a set of people acting a certain way — alive, married, happy-ish — and when that was gone, you were sunk.”

The novel gets close to tackling this intriguing definition of home, but the future of the family and each character is hastily and vaguely summed up at the book’s end. Many small and large questions remain a mystery. In some ways, Love All could be read as a tamer version of The Sex Cure, a voyeuristic window into the lives of these fictional Cooperstown residents, but it unfortunately stops short at an enticing glimpse.

Christine Thomas is a writer in Hawaii.

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