REVIEW: THE SUMMER HOUSE, BY HANNAH MCKINNON

 

Flossy Merrill has managed to—somewhat begrudgingly—gather her three ungrateful grown children from their dysfunctional lives for a summer reunion at the family’s Rhode Island beach house. Clementine, her youngest child and a young mother of two small children, has caused Flossy the most worry after enduring a tragically life-altering year. But Samuel and his partner Evan are not far behind in their ability to alarm: their prospective adoption search has just taken a heart-wrenching turn. Only Paige, the eldest of the headstrong Merrill clan, is her usual self: arriving precisely on time with her well-adapted teens. Little does her family know that she, too, is facing personal struggles of her own.

No matter. With her family finally congregated under one seaside roof, Flossy is determined to steer her family back on course even as she prepares to reveal the fate of the summer house that everyone has thus far taken for granted: she’s selling it. The Merrill children are both shocked and outraged and each returns to memories of their childhoods at their once beloved summer house—the house where they have not only grown up, but from which they have grown away. With each lost in their respective heartaches, Clementine, Samuel, and Paige will be forced to reconsider what really matters before they all say goodbye to a house that not only defined their summers, but, ultimately, the ways in which they define themselves.

My Thoughts: In alternating narratives, we meet each of the family members as they approach their final summer in the Rhode Island vacation home. At the beginning of their week together, none of the adult children know of their parents’ plans to sell the house. They approach the week as one of many, remembering summers in the past and envisioning more in the future.

Clem is still suffering from her loss; Sam and Evan struggle with the adoption issues that might not work out for them; and Paige is worried about how distant her husband David has been. Then there are Paige’s teen children, Emma and Ned, each behaving in ways that signal trouble ahead.

As the week unfolds, with the party approaching, we wonder if they would have different thoughts on the lives they took for granted, once they know what their parents have planned. Will their memories and feelings seem more precious to them in light of the upcoming change?

Before their awareness, however, they interact like the siblings that grew up together: fierce, competitive, and sometimes brash. But when forced to consider the alternative of never spending the summers in the house, they seem to mellow out, calm down, and come up with a solution. The Summer House was a somewhat predictable, yet still engaging family story that kept me wondering how they would deal with the changes ahead. 4.5.

***

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REVIEW: THE DINNER, BY HERMAN KOCH

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Crime and punishment, political aspirations, and family dynamics are the centerpiece for the disturbing novel, The Dinner.

Serge Lohman is a politician, but to his family and especially to his brother, he is a narcissistic control freak. When Serge and his wife Babette plan to meet for dinner at an expensive restaurant, accompanied by his brother Paul and wife Claire, he has an agenda.

At first they believe that they all have the same agenda, but after a long and often interrupted meal, they realize there is more going on.

As the narrator, Paul’s story wends its way into the intricacies of the dinner itself, and we learn a lot about his relationships, his personality disorder, and how he views the world. Both he and Claire seem sympathetic characters for a while…until troubling events crop up, and everything changes.

On the other hand, Serge is one of those characters we all love to hate. Full of himself, and someone who loves to hear himself speak, we might just want to clobber him.

Set in Amsterdam, we learn more than we thought we wanted to know as the agenda for the evening unfolds. Subjects: the two sons of Serge and Paul…and then Serge’s adopted son Beau, whose name doesn’t even come up during the meal.

I was frustrated at times by how the story kept weaving back and forth in time, but these forays into the past did offer up insights into the characters. 4.5 stars.

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REVIEW: HIDDEN, BY CATHERINE MCKENZIE

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When a life is abruptly interrupted due to a sudden death, those left behind must struggle to piece together unanswered questions, while grieving for the loss.

Jeff Manning had just started walking home from work after a difficult day, focused on what had happened and blinded by the sun in his eyes, when he is struck by a car and killed.

His wife Claire learns about the accident right away, but Jeff’s colleague Tish, who lives in another city, hears nothing and wonders about the unanswered texts she has sent him. By the time she learns of his death on the following Monday, she has spent a frantic weekend wondering and worrying.

Hidden is a story about relationships, mistakes, forbidden emotional connections, and secrets that linger long afterwards. The story is narrated in alternating viewpoints, including Jeff’s, which takes us back to events that happened before his death and lends his perspective to a story that had me questioning everything. As we soon learn, in bits and pieces, there is always more to the story than what appears on the surface. And each person has a different view. The suspense builds as we try to piece it all together for ourselves.

Meanwhile, the author reveals the family dynamics in each of the households: Tish, her husband Brian, and her pre-adolescent daughter Zoe, are all struggling with issues that have nothing to do with Tish and Jeff, and they, too, are in the dark. Keeping secrets can be a very difficult thing to do under the best of circumstances, but in the aftermath of a death, emotions run high.

Claire has to deal with her son’s grief, as well as coming face-to-face with her ex-boyfriend Tim, who was also Jeff’s brother. These dynamics add another layer to the story.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story, since the writer’s style had me guessing throughout; at the end, there were still many questions and only a few answers, but I loved the journey. Definitely a five star read for me.

DECONSTRUCTING A FAMILIAL LANDSCAPE — A REVIEW

When Jane Nelson seemingly spins out of control one day and drowns her son Simon, and attempts to drown his twin sister Sarah, her husband Tom, a professor, is blindsided. And then, once Jane’s trial has ended, and she is charged with insanity, Tom faces charges of “failure to protect.”

As his attorney prepares Tom for trial, they begin building a defense based on the complexities of nature and nurture, hoping to uncover the precursors to Jane’s condition, while at the same time, showing that there was no way that Tom could have foreseen the tragic events, or how anyone could have predicted Jane’s behavior.

The title of the book JANEOLOGY could describe the very process of investigation via retrocognition, in that it deconstructs the genetic/psychological landscape of Jane’s ancestry, beginning with her mother, Victoria, who was murdered, leaving Jane motherless at age ten.

This unique exploration into the precursors of Jane’s behavior was a fascinating trip via a psychic Mariah, who is a relative of Jane’s. Through objects in an old trunk, Mariah takes the reader (and Tom) back, showing us a history of mental illness, abuse, and violence. In Jane’s immediate family of origin, she lost her father to divorce early on, and she was left with a sociopathic mother who used men and her daughter to satisfy her own needs. Her mother’s murder when she was just ten could have planted the final seeds that led to the tragedy.

But as the attorney has pointed out, many people have terrible childhoods and do not grow up to murder their children. What set Jane apart? Therefore, while examining the many layers of familial history might seem like “overkill,” instead they show us that the inbred violence in her history was like a ticking time bomb.

An interesting “epilogue” fast-forwards to give us a glimpse of Sarah’s future.

As I closed the final pages of this unique suspense tale, I was reminded of my own history as a social worker who dealt with many of these issues in my daily life. Evaluations by therapists and studies of the family dynamics led us to our conclusions. Harrington’s approach is unique and fascinating and makes for an interesting story. There were parts of the historic study that were lengthy and rambling, leading us far astray of the legal situation in which the father found himself. In the end, we were left with as many questions as answers. Four stars.