All in the Family | Book Review | Chicago Reader

All in the Family 

Three new novels grapple with domestic dysfunction.

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MY SISTER'S CONTINENT | Gina Frangello (Chiasmus)

Gina Frangello brings a mountain of intelligence to her first novel, but little light is brought to bear on the events in My Sister's Continent. The title refers to Freud's remark about a woman's sexuality being the "dark continent" of psychology. In her acknowledgments Frangello, the editor of the literary journal Other Voices and its publishing arm, OV Books, says she was teaching Freud's "Dora" case study, in which he treats a young woman for "hysteria," in a literature class when she noticed the similarity between the Viennese families involved and a couple of Chicago clans she'd written about in a series of short stories. The result is a sort of postmodern gothic exercise more satisfying intellectually than emotionally--a little odd in a novel concerned almost exclusively with sex.

Kendra and Kirby are identical twins from the North Shore. Kirby is the "good girl," sharing a Bucktown loft with her fiance. Kendra, who split town after high school and has hardly been heard from since, is newly returned to Chicago. A back injury has ended her ballet career and, loaded with painkillers and suffering from an eating disorder and a bad attitude, she enters into an S-M affair with her father's law partner. Oh, and the father's a recovering drunk who's had a long-term affair with that same partner's wife and is now stricken with AIDS.

The novel takes the form of Kirby's winding, angry reply to her former shrink, who's using her as a case study in a book ("Hysteria in the New Millennium"). Speaking sometimes in the first person to the doctor, sometimes using the third person from Kendra's point of view, Kirby drags the reader through the months that culminate with Kendra bingeing herself into the hospital, then disappearing for good. Childhood trauma has haunted the sisters for years, but while it's not too hard to guess what it is, the hints go on and on for pages, dropped in improbably intricate yet vague conversations (many of which take place while doin' it) and drawn out in some really purple passages that make the book not much fun to read. Then again, this is Kirby speaking throughout, and it's not much fun being Kirby.

That Frangello brings all this to a close with a couple really nifty twists says a lot about her control of a narrative that exists mostly in shadow. She seems to know full well it's a weird and brutal world out there--too bad her novel, rooted in theory, seems such a bloodless thing. --Patrick Daily

GIRLY | Elizabeth Merrick (Demimonde)

Elizabeth Merrick is terrifically outspoken about the raw deal that women get cut in the lit world. The New York-based founder of two girl-centric reading series--the late Cupcake and the newish Grace--she's regularly slammed the inequity of the magazine industry, keeping tabs on the number of women published by the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and other pubs at gracereadingseries.com. To buy her first novel, the debut title from her own Demimonde Books, is, she suggests, to "support independent publishing and women writers," causes for which I'd happily pin a button to my lapel.

So it goes without saying that I wanted badly to love Merrick's ambitious Girly, the story of estranged sisters Ruth and Racinda and their barely functional, born-again mother, Amandine. A pretty unsympathetic character throughout, Amandine gets saved in a neighbor's living-room church after she's abandoned the infant Ruth to her mother-in-law for several years--a betrayal that's partly to blame for Ruth's later destructive rages and her cruel taunting of the younger Racinda. After her loveless marriage ends, Amandine moves the girls from the east coast to California in an isolated act of strength, but Ruth soon goes AWOL--a frustrating plot turn, as she's the powder keg that's fueled the book thus far. From here on the focus moves to teenage Racinda who, hobbled by her family's troubled past, charts her own wayward path. She hooks up with a boorish, philandering jazz musician, and that's just the first of her poor choices, which are understandable, if nothing terribly new in a young female character.

There's a powerful saga of family and growing up female here, but it's squashed under flabby sentences and poor structure. Racinda is the strongest of seven (seven!) narrators, but when another character describes the way Ruth tells stories--"They merged into one long, intricate knot in your shoelaces or hair, one elaborate thing I stopped following"--Merrick might as well be speaking of many of her own chapters. She has a habit of hinting that something very bad and significant is going to happen ("It was that night that tipped them off to all the stuff that was wrong with her"), only to repeatedly undercut the tension with haphazardly overwrought prose. Merrick's said that her "director's cut" of Girly was 700 pages long, but the 500-plus-page final version could still use a rigorous edit. Girly can't be mistaken for chick lit--in that, Merrick has succeeded--but neither is it the Big Epic Novel it strives to be. --Susannah J. Felts

THE ACCIDENTAL | Ali Smith (Pantheon)

A woman appears on the doorstep of an English family's summer home with a cheerful "Sorry I'm late" and plops herself down on the living room couch. The man assumes she is one of his wife's devoted readers; his wife assumes she's one of the students her husband is sleeping with. The two children don't really care who brought her. They're just happy, for now, that she's here.

Chaos ensues.

It's ironic that Ali Smith has chosen to set her sixth book and first full-length novel within the confines of a family; earlier this year she notoriously accused women writers of being too "domestic." Here each family member takes turns telling the story with a nuanced shift in third-person narrative. Each voice feels startlingly true. Twelve-year-old Astrid is remarkably authentic, her narration a string of almost-revelations that end with a wry "whatever," as is the way she lays claim to the language of her professor stepfather, words like preternaturally and id est. Some of the time she even uses them correctly.

The Smart family can't seem to communicate except through lies. The mother, Eve, is a hit novelist with a severe case of writer's block, which she hides by typing randomly on her keyboard whenever she hears someone outside her door. Son Magnus has participated in a prank at his high school that has led to the suicide of the victim. And stepfather Michael thinks he's being sneaky about his affairs with students, but everyone knows, including the administration. Into this comes Amber, the stranger unable to tell a lie. "I found him in the bathroom trying to hang himself," she says of Magnus. The family laughs, having no idea that his mood swings are not of the typical teenage boy variety.

It's certainly not dull--another insult Smith threw at "women's fiction"--but neither does it ever break from the confines of the family. Domestic fiction, at its best, can throw back a reflection of society at large. But while The Accidental--which came out in the U.K. last year and this month won the Whitbread Novel Award and was short-listed for the Booker Prize--is smartly written, charming, and an entertaining read, it ends exactly where you would expect it to, with lessons learned and everyone better off. In the future, if Smith is going to make sweeping criticisms of her fellow writers, she'd better be ready to follow her own advice. --Jessa Crispin

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