Four Novels by Three Authors, All About Family Lifeby Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Majorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

Long Island by Colm Toibin is a May, 2024 sequel to his notable 2009 novel Brooklyn and follows its principal characters, Eilis Lacey, an Irish immigrant to Brooklyn in the 1950’s, and her husband Tony Fiorella, a plumber from a robust Italian family.   When Toibin picks up their story again, it’s the 1970’s, and they have made an upward move to suburban Long Island. Eilis’s ties to Enniscorthy in Ireland still color her personality, especially as she copes with the third-generation and Americanized Fiorella family.

Readers of Brooklyn will recall that, when Eilis’s sister, Rose, had died, Eilis had returned to Ireland, telling no one that she had secretly married Tony.  On that trip, she became romantically involved with Jim Farrell, but left him abruptly to return to Tony, leaving behind only whispered rumors of the reasons for her departure.

When the story continues, she learns that Tony has impregnated another woman, a client for his plumbing services whose husband refuses to keep the baby. Nor will Eilis accept it. A different approach is taken by husband Tony and his mother, who – with several other in-laws all living in the same cul de sac – have clearcut opinions on what should be done.  Eilis plans an open-ended return to Enniscorthy, taking with her their son and daughter. The book dives deep into maturing marital relationships, passionate love, betrayal and obligation. A few readers may find that the sequel is a pale enhancement of Brooklyn. But, in Long Island, Toibin crafts a quiet but tight narrative, shifting third-person perspectives and opening to the reader the inner lives of these interesting and complex characters. I won’t tell you how it ends, but I think you’ll enjoy the journey on which Long Island takes you.

Leaving by Roxana Robinson is a more contemporary story about marital relationships, betrayals and obligations, passion and guilt.  Published this year, it was recommended by my friend Beth, who rarely gets it wrong.  What starts out seemingly as an Oprah-type relationship novel moves quickly into a thoughtful exploration of how relationships start, evolve, mature, fail or succeed.  What compromises must be made? What are the obligations of husbands and wives (or partners and lovers) when children are involved?  Leaving is also about the relationships of parents and their adult children and, in a deeply meaningful way, the relationships of middle-aged adults to their aging and increasingly challenged elderly parents.

It’s told mostly from the alternating perspectives of divorcee Sarah, mother of two grown children, and her former college-age romantic partner Warren, with whom she reconnects. Warren remains stuck in an unsatisfying marriage with a comparatively shallow suburban wife, Janet, and their perpetually enraged young adult daughter, Kat. Sarah, an art curator who lives in Westchester and works in Manhattan, and Warren, a Boston-based architect, both have their own lives and meaningful professional and civic commitments. It’s all about the complexities of romance after sixty, moral courage, obligation (again), freedom and inevitability.    Robinson’s writing is thoughtful and elegant, and her often-short phrases move forward the story line to keep the reader totally engaged.

Cost by Roxana Robinson is also a family saga, written 16 years earlier, and shows less elegant, more formulaic approach to structuring a novel. The story line briefly introduces us to Columbia University professor and artist Julia, divorced from her husband Wendell, slightly alienated from her sister Harriet, devoted to her mother who is experiencing the beginnings of dementia, angry with her father Edward, a renowned neurosurgeon of harsh intellect and hyper-critical of all family members, and Julia and Wendell’s two children. Each character is defined by a specific set of resentments. Son Steven is displeasing Edward by going into law not medicine, and his brother, Jack, has annoyed everyone by his irresponsible lifestyle. Jack, it should be mentioned, is an aspiring offbeat musician who lives in Brooklyn among junkies and has become one himself.

As Robinson did in Leaving, she starts out by alternating accounts of each family member and their very different viewpoints of the several family members. This goes on for the first quarter of the book and becomes a little tedious. But the narrative then focuses on Jack’s capitulation to heroin, his refusal to get straight, his arrest for burglarizing a pharmacy for drugs, the family’s attempts at intervention and how his painful drama unfolds from then on. When the story intensifies around the family and its response to the junkie in its midst, Robinson’s well-researched account achieves forward motion, and the tension mounts. The reader becomes less involved in parsing the technical structure of the novel and more involved in the story itself. The transitions among the characters are smoother, and this reader found herself more emotionally engaged in the plight of Jack and the hurt and frustration of his family.  It is this part of the book that puts Robinson’s effective narrative skills on display.

After Annie by Anna Quindlen is a novel that gives itself away in its title.  The main character, Annie, is a mother of four children under 13 and wife to a hard-working plumber.  They live in a house owned by his mother, a cynic and malcontent, who feels let down by everything and everyone. Her sister, Katherine, is less important than best friend, Annemarie, her bestie since high school, her alter-ego but for a drug addiction she developed as an adult. Annie, a nurse, is beloved by her patients in a nursing home and, as it turns out, by members of the larger community who have benefited from her generosity of spirit.

In the very first chapter, Annie returns from work one day, complains about a headache and dies of an aneurysm on the living room floor. The rest of the book is all about how husband Bill, daughter Ali (the eldest and wisest), three little boys and best friend, Annemarie, handle the stunning loss.

Each of the characters grieves in a different way, and their stages of grieving divide the book into four sections named after the seasons, winter, spring, etc. Through their grieving, we learn not only about who these characters are but more and more about Annie herself, her practicality, her optimism, her supportive spirit, and life-enhancing humor.

After Annie is about the little things that make up a life, and all those other lives too.

Quindlen, through her newspaper columns and many novels, has become a doyenne of domesticity, but I confess that her chronicling this time sometimes felt less revelatory and more predictable, even tedious. After Annie is an okay book, but not great.

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