The time was the mid-seventies. Paul and Roz Mellow lived in a suburb called Wontaucket, and on a “normal” weekend, their four children are spending the day alone while their parents are off giving a lecture.
The second oldest child, Michael, discovers the mysterious tome on a top shelf, bookended by something innocuous, but he is curious. Something about the way it seems almost hidden….
From that point on, the story unfolds as the children discover what the book entails and secretly share its contents upstairs on the “children’s floor.” The children are Holly, the oldest; Michael; Dashiell and Claudia.
Their lives will never be the same again.
When Paul and Roz first met, he was studying psychoanalysis and Roz was his patient. They broke their first rules by getting involved with each other, which resulted in Paul’s removal from the program. Writing a bestselling “Joy of Sex” type book was not something they actually planned to do, and they were unprepared for the rousing success of this book…and surprised, somewhat, by how the book ultimately changed the shape of their lives.
The story is really about what happens after the book’s publication. How the family comes apart at some point, when Roz falls in love with someone else. In the thirty years after the book, we glimpse moments in the children’s complicated lives, with their conflicts and issues; we see the parents move on individually and then with other partners; and then, we watch and wonder when a publisher wants to reissue the book. That is when Michael goes to Florida (at his mother’s request) to try to persuade the reluctant Paul to agree—for Paul has been against the idea and is still bitter about the divorce.
The author’s portrayal of each of the characters, with their past and present moments, reveals how each of them struggle with the legacy of the book. Of all the children, Holly is the remote one, living in LA and refusing to share in any of the family gatherings. During her youth, we saw her submerse herself in drugs; now she cocoons with her husband and child.
Claudia has always felt inferior in many ways. Not pretty enough or talented enough, even though this is an incorrect appraisal. Dashiell comes to terms early with his homosexuality, and seems the happiest of the four children. Michael is successful, but is struggling with depression; an antidepressant he takes has negative sexual side effects.
In the end, there are celebratory moments after the second launch of the book, and everyone (except Holly) gathers for the occasion. In some ways, each family member has finally come to terms with the book—at last.
But what lingering foreshadowing hovers over each of them, even as they celebrate? What unexpected life-altering moments lie just ahead? Even as the story ended without answering some of these questions, there was a sense that somehow the characters would stumble along through whatever came next—because they had overcome the downside of their past.
The Position: A Novel was poignant and funny, with sharply drawn characters to which I could relate (except for Holly). Even though she is portrayed as the remote one, I believe that more could have been revealed about her. This omission left a cavernous hole in the canvas.
Coming of age in the seventies left its mark in various ways on those of us who had the opportunity (or curse!) to call that time our own. Wolitzer skillfully unlayers the facets of the sexual revolution and its impact on all who lived through it, and leaves the reader with the notion that family connections come in a variety of forms.