by Sarah Moriarty
300 pages, Little A (Amazon), Kindle Edition
Review by J. S. Colley
I chose this free book from Amazon Prime’s First Read program.
The Willoughby children lost their father and now they’ve lost their mother. For decades, the family spent every summer at their beloved lake house in Maine. Now, they gather during the Fourth of July holiday, sans parents, for what could be their last stay.
There are four children: Tom, Gwen, Libby, and Danny. Tom, the successful, eldest child, is obsessive and rigid. Gwen, the wild, fun-loving artist, finds herself with a difficult decision to make. Libby, the thoughtful, sensitive lesbian, is still coming to terms with who she is. Danny, the youngest, was so attached to his mother that her death sends him into a deep, dangerous depression.
Over the course of their holiday, details of the family’s past are revealed through the eyes of each child as well as the now-deceased parents. As is common in families, each member’s reality is different, each relationship tainted or bolstered by witnessed events. While they make the difficult decision of what’s to become of the aging house that binds them as a family, secrets are revealed, perceptions shattered.
The writing is both skilled and poetic, but the diverging storylines, if not trite, are expected; the characters clichéd. Which is disappointing. The author is a beautiful writer but, in this case, the story seemed a vehicle for the delightful prose instead of the prose being a vehicle for the story.
The children and, I would argue, the parents are all stereotypes. The successful, seemingly wealthy, older brother is cold and obsessive. His siblings snicker at him behind his back. And, of course, the reader is told he was a “Bush voter.” (For once, I’d like to see a successful person be characterized as something other than cold, heartless, and obsessive or a Republican. Are there no successful businesspeople who are Democrats?) The lesbian sister is kind and tentative about her siblings’ possible reactions to her chosen partner. (Sorry, but this felt like the perfunctory gay character, another social issue checked off the list.) The wild, promiscuous artist with the unwanted pregnancy and requisite difficult decision. (Another social issue? Check.
And, are there no sensible artists out there? How do any of them produce meaningful or prolific works with such a lackadaisical attitude?) The youngest child, coddled by his parents, especially his mother, is incapable of functioning in the world. (Is the youngest child anything other than this?) The addle-headed but well-intentioned mother, Scarlet, who is willing to live with her husband’s dark secret. The seemingly loving husband who, as mentioned, has a dark secret. It’s as if the author wanted to pile as many au courant socio-political issues as possible into the novel. All novels should aspire to teach us something, but the learning should be like a hidden nugget to be ferreted out. The reader wants to feel as if they are on a scavenger hunt for hidden meanings and symbolism, or else they would have chosen non-fiction. When a reader sees too much of the author on the page, it takes them out of the story.
But, in spite of its flaws, readers who love descriptive writing will find North Haven worthy. And, I must admit, while I found myself, near the end, skipping over some of the more repetitive descriptive narrative, and while the psychoanalyst’s playbook definition of personalities based on sibling birth order took me out of the story at times, I still managed to enjoy the novel.
I would definitely try this author again.