Bill and Penny Blair had a plan for the perfect life in late 1950s California: Build a home on a piece of oak-dominated land in Portola Valley and a life around Bill’s career as a pediatrician. There would, of course, be children.
“Penny was an only child who for company during her school years had drawn pictures of the children she expected to bear,” author Ann Packer writes in this graceful, poignant novel. “On the day Bill proposed to her, she handed him a portfolio containing a sampling of these sketches, and he was moved and intrigued by her having chosen to include two boys and one girl rather than the one of each most people would have selected.”
They go on to have two boys, one girl and another boy, a brood Penny describes as “a pack of kids led by a brilliant and demanding boy, complicated by a headstrong girl with no gift at all for the arts, softened and therefore confounded by a meek and dreamy boy, and finally overwhelmed by a miniature wild man.”
The narrative, spread over decades, leads a reader to believe Penny would have been happier if she had just kept the drawings for company. Children and the demands of marriage overwhelm her, and as she shrinks emotionally into her art, she retreats physically into a studio on the family’s land.
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Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James, in turn, long for their mother’s approval (or even just attention) and try to dream up a quest that will appeal to her sense of adventure and artistry. “A crusade,” they call it, an idea as futile as it is heartbreaking: “We have to think of things to do that Mom will want to do with us.”
Penny’s transition is one of most puzzling elements of the novel: What changes her from a girl who daydreams about her future children to a mother who just wants the kids to leave her alone? Why does her husband, a Korean War veteran and altogether decent man whose motto is “children deserve care,” find it so impossible to care for his wife? Whose side are we supposed to be on?
Anyone who chooses sides will probably stick with the kids, whose childhoods are sketched out in vivid, moving scenes that hint at the adult lives to come.
When the novel catches up with the present-day Blair children, they are still raw after the death of their father a couple years earlier. By the time he’s in his mid-40s, Robert, the brilliant oldest, is an emotionally stunted physician and father of two. Rebecca is a psychiatrist whose idea of a good time involves cooking dinner and watching a TED Talks DVD with her boring, considerate husband. Ryan the dreamer teaches at the school for artistic children that he attended and lives with his French Canadian wife and baby in a simple, sustainable bubble in his mother’s former studio.
The story is mostly driven by James, the wild child who never encountered a peaceful scene he couldn’t disrupt. He’s in the midst of a new crisis as the story unfolds; the rest of the family, caught in the whirlwind, is trying to dodge the debris. His self-destructive antics grow tiresome, but the author has earned him some sympathy with her portrayal of his madcap, guileless youth. For all their flaws, each Blair has redeeming qualities and vulnerabilities that make them (mostly) likeable.
The author has clearly taken Bill Blair’s motto to heart: Characters — and readers — deserve care. With her warm, nuanced portrayal of a family and its foibles, Packer delivers.
Hannah Sampson is a Miami Herald staff writer.