This novel takes a hilarious look at the modern day American family and the bones of life that are thrown at it on its tumultuous journey: mental health, care of the elderly, academia, internet dating, stalkers and even terrorists, to name a handful.
Harry, older brother to the brash, arrogant and more successful George, narrates the story in the first person. During a Thanksgiving dinner, he casts a cynical eye around the room at the family around him: his Chinese-American wife Claire, his brother’s children Nathaniel (Nate) and Ashley who are glued to their electronic devices, George who shows off more loudly than ever and George’s wife, Jane, who seems overworked and put upon. Then everything changes when Jane kisses Harry in the kitchen and soon his life is catapulted into a series of tragic events.
In no time, Harry finds himself responsible for his brother’s children and ‘becomes’ his brother: livingin his house, wearing his clothes, walking his dog and taking care of his roses. An academic, whose specialism is ex-President Richard Nixon, Harry loses his job, but takes time out to finish his book on his political hero and to manage the children’s upbringing. Into this story come a plethora of absurd and at times unbelievable events: internet relationships, visits to George at a mental facility and to his mother in a home for the elderly, adoption of an orphaned child, Ashley’s lesbian ‘friendship’ (the girl is only 11 years old!) with her teacher and so much more.
I was attracted to this book because it won the Orange prize for fiction. And yes it is a sharply writtentale of the nuclear family and how it has evolved, not necessarily for the best. However, it left me feeling frustrated at times. It was like a dog chasing its own tail, trying to work out where it was going. It felt like a short story, which somehow grew and grew into something unmanageable, without a clear sense of any direction or plotting.
After 50 or so pages I almost gave up, but I didn’t as I wanted to see if this story was going somewhere and I wanted to trust the Orange prize jury. I did start to develop a fondness for some of the characters: Ashley and Nate in particular. They felt real and were well developed. I even quite liked the part of the story that relocated to South Africa, although it felt rather disjointed from the rest of the book. However, the biggest let down for me was the underdevelopment of Harry’s character. Even after 500 pages of reading his story, he left me feeling cold. Everyone was drawn to him: from the older folk to the women who tried to jump on him. But, I didn’t feel I knew him. I wasn’t involved in his story. He always left me on the sidelines looking in.
Verdict: This is a very loose ‘A year in the life of Harry Silver and his emotional journey of self-discovery’ story. I loved the humour and sharp writing style of A.M. Homes, and she creates some real laugh out loud moments, but a lot of the content was too far-fetched for me and had me cringing with disbelief and astonishment. As for Harry: if someone asked me to draw him or tell me more about him, I wouldn’t know what to say except that he seems like a nice, affable, nondescript sort. Perhaps that’s the right answer.