Written by on December 26, 2012

Two Very Unmerry Reads for the Darkest Time of Year

If you can’t stand another made for TV version of “The Christmas Carol”, if you go homicidal if you someone suggests watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” again, and if you change your Facebook timeline photo to the Grinch this time of year, you’re probably not in the market for some feel-good seasonal fictional fare. I’ve recently read a couple of excellent novels that might fit the bill.

The World without You by Joshua Henkin takes place during the anti-Christmas season, the 4th of July, and most of the characters are Jewish. If that’s still not Noel-averse enough for you, the main reason the Frankel family is gathering is for the memorial of their son Leo, a Daniel Pearl-like journalist who was killed a year earlier. The shock has also driven a wedge in the long marriage of the parents of the family, a sad fact that they plan to announce to their surviving children once everyone arrives. Bleak enough yet?

This isn’t a complete drama-fest, however; the characters are quirky enough to have some foibles, sometimes laughable ones. Noelle, for instance, who was a bit of a slutty slacker in high school, has now become an orthodox Jew, and won’t be seen anywhere without her headscarf. She may or may not have a hearing problem — it seemed to fade in and out as needed when she was a teenager. Now she’s feeding her family off paper plates, since even the extra set of dishes her parents have bought specifically so that she can keep kosher on her visit have become defiled, in her eyes at least, due to some minor infraction.

Her sister Clarissa, meanwhile, is in that special circle of hell inhabited by 39-year-old wives who decide suddenly that they must have a child. And the third sister, Lily, a lawyer, is permanently mad at everyone, on general principle. All the old sisterly resentments crop up. Here’s Clarissa, facing down the prospect of in vitro fertilization, and reliving her past accommodation of her sister’s flakiness:

Clarissa, meanwhile, remains silent. She’s doing the dishes again, the tendons in her forearms ballooning as she applies pressure to the steel wool. The water is as hot as she can tolerate, her hands turning pink as jellyfish. She’s thinking of their childhood, of the chorus that rang through their days. Go bring Noelle her knapsack, she forgot her homework. Go pick up Noelle from school, she lost her keys. Go take care of Noelle, she f*cked the wrong guy. And now Noelle is lecturing her on responsibility. “You’re right,” she says. “Nathaniel and I should have gotten here sooner.”

“Okay,” Noelle says. “That’s all I was saying.”

“Jesus, Noelle. Would you leave her the f*ck alone?”

Added to the Frankel family mix are the spouses of the children, including Thisbe, Leo’s widow, who’s wondering how and when to let the family know that she’s dating someone. When Noelle’s husband gets his feelings hurt and takes off for hours, Noelle is forced to be an adult, for her children and her siblings, as well as to honor Leo’s memory. I enjoyed this eccentric, sometimes frustrating family, and found the story’s resolution satisfying, and, while still realistic, much less bleak than the plot outline sounds.

I started reading via audiobook Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin back in September. Shriver is a favorite of mine — I’ve read and enjoyed So Much for That and, more recently, The New Republic. She’s often funny, but her humor is pitch black (the two books referenced above, for instance, center around degenerative disease, failing marriages, and terrorism, among other things), so when I heard that her earlier book We Need to Talk about Kevin had a Columbine style mass murderer at its center, I wasn’t surprised. I might have skipped it if I hadn’t seen the trailer for the movie, which looked very promising. The bleakness factor made it easier to handle in audio, on the treadmill, in small doses. While none of the characters are sympathetic, I was completely drawn in by the first paragraph, and wanted to continue, despite the dread of what was going to happen next. And I definitely wanted to see the movie once I finished the book.

If I’d doubted the relevance of this book for a minute, that was all over with the Newtown murders. I started to confuse the fictional teenager with the real one, and if anything, my need to finish it was even more urgent. While the weaponry and the age of the killer differ, there are a lot of parallels. Shriver has said in interviews that readers’ reactions to her story mostly fell into two groups: those who found the killer’s mother completely blameless — how could she have seen this coming? the kid was a bad seed! — and 100% at fault — of course he turned into a mass murderer! she was cold and incapable of loving him properly! She claims that this is what she intended. Another stark contrast is between Kevin’s parents: his mother believes he’s a disaster waiting to happen; his father believes he’s merely misunderstood. She makes all three of the basically unlikable characters completely believable. I have yet to watch the movie, but from the trailer it looks very true to the book:

Author photo credits, from top:

Matthew Polis
Random House

Steve Forrest
Insight/Visual, for the NY Times

Read more on movie tie-in and new fiction.

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