Margaret has tried her best to keep her marriage to John and their 3 children’s lives as “normal” as possible, but she has not been able to stifle her fear that John’s formidable depression might return at any time. Steadfast in her love for him, she stands by him, even as he is unable to maintain even the fiction of function. Yet, as she is trying desperately to guide her children through their adolescence, she cannot prevent the tragedy that ends up defining them. Maybe, she thinks, she can keep them close enough to show them that family can help each other get through.
The sheer beauty of the writing in this novel carries it to great heights. The story is told from a rotation of voices, which strengthens the perspective and gives us a glimpse into the minds of each member of this close-knit and deeply pained family. There is such imagery, almost poetry, in the descriptions and the way ideas are shared. Michael, the eldest of the 3 children, has inherited his father’s mental illness, and it manifests in a mania, obsessions, and overwhelming and paralyzing guilt. He often rambles on, the typical “flight of ideas” of someone with mania. One of his rants, during a loan deferment application, contains the following passage: “I was selected by the Department of Education to voyage on their first Student Loan Probe to Jupiter, as one of four debitnauts. We traveled for years, passing through nebulae of internships and retail, through the wake of an imploding technology boom, and on through the outer rings of bankruptcy, before finally reaching the planet’s gaseous surface. Our hope was to make contact with the lost colony of the underemployed.” (Page 290) And so on.
The quality of the writing extends to the character development as well, in my opinion. We get inside the brains of Michael, of his sister, Celia, and his much younger brother, Alec. We learn how they cope, how they don’t cope, and how they rely on each other to get through. Their bond is just as dysfunctional as it is functional – typical and realistic. They fight each other and fight for each other. But there is always love underlying all of it – and that is communicated with the warmth and the humor and even the eye rolls that we can so clearly envision.
So yes, this book has its depressing overtones, but it is so beautifully written that it is worth the hardship of it. It is also such a realistic portrait of mental illness and its impact on a family that it’s our duty not to shy away from it.