April 13, 2014

The secrets of a far-flung family

An unemployed adult son finds a new quest: seeking the truth about his father.

Julia Glass’ fifth novel opens with middle-aged, unemployed Kit Noonan doing dishes at the kitchen sink. Passivity and bad luck have landed him in the doldrums, as he anxiously wonders how to support his two children, fix a leaky roof and somehow not disappoint his faultless wife.

“Even in the midst of a heated argument,” he thinks, “she makes space for others to speak — you can get a word in edgewise with Sandra, as many words as you like — because … she knows there is no debate she can’t win, no matter how long it takes.” After Kit’s failure to secure a job as a professor of art history, Sandra’s solution to nudge her husband out of his malaise is to track down his biological father.

If any writer could tackle the exhausted finding-my-family-roots genre, it’s Glass, whose novel Three Junes won the 2002 National Book Award (she’s also the author of The Widower’s Tale, I See You Everywhere and The Whole World Over). The plot set-up, however, strains the limits of plausibility: What sort of husband and dad takes off on a quixotic search when finances are so grim? But Glass’ plot device fades in importance as the story and language draw us in. She also makes a shrewd decision to shift to flashbacks of Kit’s parents and use narration from three additional (and interesting) characters.

Kit first travels to Vermont to see Jasper, the man once married to his mother, Daphne. A dog sled racer, skier and all-around outdoorsman, Jasper masks his innate kindness with a sardonic, dry exterior. Glass builds tension by revealing that Kit’s mother still refuses to tell him who his father was. Jasper is “stunned … to know that she continued to withhold this simple bit of knowledge from Kit all the way into his life as an adult, as a father of his own children. Jesus but the woman could be cruel.”

The older man debates his loyalty to his ex-wife, who swore him to secrecy: “You could think of promises as a series of nets: some hold for a lifetime; others give way, surprisingly flimsy, in no time at all.” In the end, Jasper reveals the name of Kit’s grandmother: Lucinda Burns.

Glass creates another sympathetic character with Lucinda, another of the book’s narrators. A devout Catholic whose faith is slightly dented, she has navigated adulthood in the shadow of her husband Zeke, a U.S. senator. Unlike her son Malachy, who wanted nothing to do with his son Kit, Lucinda longed to be a part of her grandson’s life. But the timing of the revelation couldn’t be worse: Zeke just had a stroke.

Despite her husband’s frail health, Lucinda introduces Kit to her children and other grandchildren. Glass captures the angst, pain and unexpected humor of this situation as the older couple speculate what might happen if they both fall ill and their children Jonathan and Christina house them on separate coasts: “I’d have more fun,” Lucinda muses. “I’d get to see San Francisco, go to dinner parties with artists and intellectuals. ...You’d be stuck with the lawyers and eco-freaks.”

She calls upon Malachy’s old friend, Fenno McLeod, and his partner Walter to help mastermind a reunion of sorts: Kit, his children, Lucinda and the reluctant Daphne will spend a weekend at their borrowed house on Cape Cod.

Glass’ fourth narrator, the Scottish, quasi-aristocratic Fenno, is somewhat lost, like Kit; his Manhattan bookshop has just gone out of business. Memories of the much-adored but difficult Malachy haunt Fenno: “It’s as if this part of Fenno’s past — the part that sometimes threatens the life he shares with Walter — had been, for so long, a perfect origami construction … and then some blithe stranger came along and decided to unfold it and spread it out flat.”

These characters are such humane, appealing companions that the novel’s last plot development seems an intrusion. A storm that barrels down on Cape Cod acts as a deus ex machina, triggering the death of an important character. Unfortunately, this tragedy, like the scenario that inspires Kit’s quest, feels tacked on. The delight of reading Julia Glass turns out to be the connections we make with her generous characters, who become as endearing — and exasperating — as the people we love in real life.

Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.

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