Written by Jan Kline on July 13, 2012

Bad Parenting 101

I seem to be on a jag of novels with very bad parents as major characters.

First came the master manipulators: Caleb and Camille Fang of The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, are performance artists who refer to their children, Annie and Buster, as Child A and Child B. They throw their children into their pieces almost as soon as they’re born, attempting to defeat the sentiment expressed by their teacher: “kids kill art”. They come close to killing their own kids, emotionally at least, by throwing them into situations that involve pulling the rug out from under them emotionally. Public humiliation doesn’t begin to describe what they suffer in the name of their parents’ Art. They wind up emotional basket cases: Buster so guarded that he trusts no one, including himself, and Annie so thoroughly angry that she humiliates herself rather than letting anyone else do it to her again. Caleb and Camille, meanwhile, feel betrayed by the simple fact that their progeny grow up and leave home — they apparently expected them to stay home and continue to participate in family projects indefinitely. In partial retaliation, they dream up the biggest project ever, one so extreme that Annie and Buster must make a major decision on their own on how to deal with it. They mystery of what Caleb and Camille are really up to, and the uncertainty of how Child A and Child B will deal, make the second half of this book an exciting ride, in addition to a disturbing one. The characters are unique and unforgettable. Nicole Kidman’s production company has bought the rights to the movie, and David Lindsay-Abaire (The Rabbit Hole) is going to write the screenplay.

The next pair of parents who should have considered contraception are in Alison Esapach’s The Adults. They produced Emily Vidal, an only child, in a wealthy Connecticut suburb. Witness to — and participant in — a variety of bad adult behavior (suicide, philandering, sexual abuse), Emily alternates between being a pawn and a would-be parent to her shattered mother. As she struggles to grow up, her childhood traumas continue to follow her around, even as far as Prague.

Emily was sympathetic in many ways, once I got over her snarkiness. Here’s an early example:

They arrived in bulk, in Black Tie Preferred, in one large clump behind our wooden fence, peering over each other’s shoulders and into our backyard like people at the zoo who wanted a better view of the animals.

My father’s fiftieth birthday party had just begun.

It’s true that I was expecting something. I was fourteen, my hair still sticky with lemon from the beach, my lips maroon and pulpy and full like a woman’s, red and smothered like “a giant wound,” my mother said earlier that day. She disapproved of the getup, of my yellow fit-and-flare dress that cradled my hips and pointed my breasts due north, but I didn’t care; I disapproved of this party, this whole at-home affair that would mark the last of its kind.

The women walked through the gate in black and blue and gray and brown pumps, the party already proving unsuccessful at the grass level. The men wore sharp dark ties like swords and said predictable things like, “Hello.”

but I found I spent a lot of the book wanting to shake her till her teeth rattled. I loved the writing, though, and found the story very affecting. All the characters seemed very real, but most of them behave badly, so if you need a lovable character to enjoy a book, this one may not be for you.

author photos, from top:

uncredited, from dianeprokop.com
Caitlin Peluffo

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