Published: April 7, 2015
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Recommended for readers who enjoy family dramas
Bill Blair finds the land by accident, three wooded acres in a rustic community south of San Francisco. The year is 1954, long before anyone will call this area Silicon Valley. Struck by a vision of the family he has yet to create, Bill buys the property on a whim. In Penny Greenway he finds a suitable wife, a woman whose yearning attitude toward life seems compelling and answerable, and they marry and have four children. Yet Penny is a mercurial housewife, at a time when women chafed at the conventions imposed on them. She finds salvation in art, but the cost is high.
Thirty years later, the three oldest Blair children, adults now and still living near the family home, are disrupted by the return of the youngest, whose sudden presence and all-too-familiar troubles force a reckoning with who they are, separately and together, and set off a struggle over the family's future. One by one, the siblings take turns telling the story-Robert, a doctor like their father; Rebecca, a psychiatrist; Ryan, a schoolteacher; and James, the malcontent, the problem child, the only one who hasn't settled down-their narratives interwoven with portraits of the family at crucial points in their history.
Phew! You know all those jokes about having to get drunk or behave in some other such activity after spending too much time with your family? Well, that is how I felt after spending time with the Blair family. This is not to say that this is a bad book--there is actually much to recommend it--but I, personally, did not enjoy it. Admittedly, I'm not a reader who needs to enjoy a book in order to appreciate a book and, for the most part, I did appreciate this one.
The best way I can think of to describe this book to someone is to think of an unfunny and dramatic version of Parenthood--the movie, not the TV show. Four adult children come together to deal with their childhoods under the shadow of their ever-present (but deceased) father and their absent mother. As is common with families, each child had a role--the oldest, the responsible and only girl, the treasured one, and the"bad" one and, as adults, they are all dealing with these roles.
The drama in this book is very realistic and, because of that, very painful. I am sure that readers who enjoy family dramas will have more success with this title than I did. Each of the children are explored, both as kids and as adults, and that results in 4 thorough character studies. I found the oldest two children, Robert and Rebecca, the easiest to relate to. The youngest, James, was at least understandable by the end of the book. Ryan, however, never really gelled as a real character for me. My guess is that Packer was trying to play with the idea of gender with him--he is heterosexual, but very feminine. While I don't think there is anything wrong with that, I don't feel it was done in a way that was effective and I'm not sure why that is. It wasn't that he was or wasn't likable, he just seemed like a lot was put on him, but he didn't have the depth as a character to pull it off.
The two people who were very problematic for me were the parents, Bill and Penny. We never really get to know Penny--there are a few passages that were told from her point of view, but mostly she was removed from the rest of the family. On the whole, I understand why Packer did this--the fact that Penny was not involved in her children's lives is an important element of the development of the children's characters. However, I wish Packer had committed to either telling more of the story from Penny's eyes or opted not to tell anything from her eyes.
Then we have Bill. Honestly, Bill makes Cliff Huxtable look like Al Bundy on a bad day. Really, this guy is just too good to be true. And the fact that he didn't seem true to me was a big issue for me as it seemed to undermine the entire book. I kept wishing that there would be some kind of character flaw in this guy to make him human.
I am the first to admit that family dramas can be hard for me as I find them intrinsically stressful. I know that there are many, many readers who are more interested in this than I am and I think that, if family drama is in your wheelhouse, this may be a good book for you. I also think that this would be an excellent book club selection as families always provide much fodder for conversation. However, if you prefer your family drama to be a bit--I don't know--lighter, you may want to approach this book with caution.
I received an electronic copy of this book in return for an honest review. I received no other compensation for this post.