The beach house in Bodega Bay was supposed to be our escape, but it was just another place for us to be uncomfortable together. Every summer, we used to spend a couple weeks there. My father drove us in his coral car, a BMW sedan so glossy it was almost as if it wasn’t there; all you could see were the objects and colors reflecting off of it.… My father drove, my mother sat in front, and Kevin and I piled in the back. We fought over the dividing line that separated his half of the back seat from mine. After we spent some time jabbing our elbows into each other’s ribs, our mother would tell us to quiet down. She would point her finger at me and say, “Don’t talk back to your brother.” Men were always right, they always had the authority, and she imposed this on me, though living according to that rule was at the root of her unhappiness, even if she never knew it. That, and the tendency to compare herself to everyone else, her husband to other husbands, and her children to other children, in order to measure her own success.
The scenes are crystal-clear and deliver pithy truths about authority and rank within a family, the loneliness when one does not fit into her appointed place, how a child learns about racism in America from the other side of whiteness, how invested everyone is in keeping that a secret, and the marks all of that leaves. I just wish this were a short story instead of a novel excerpt.
I’ve railed about this before. It’s possible for a novel excerpt to work wonderfully. But the two forms are different, and somehow, even an excerpt from an exceptional novel – maybe especially an excerpt from an exceptional novel – just reads off as a story. I’m not about to second-guess Ploughshares, or Pushcart, but for me the rhythm was off. The ending, instead of leaving me with that wonderful “projecting into the future” feeling only left me wondering what I’d missed, or if pages had been left out. That was before I realized it was an excerpt; now I understand.
The portrait of the unhappy-in-its-own-way family in years past was, as I said, captivating, if too short to support the grown-up final trip to Bodega Bay with its shocking ending. I idly wonder if the use of that location brings to anyone else the sense of the original Angry Birds ripping Suzanne Pleshette to shreds and leaving her limp and bleeding on the front porch. It’s not an inappropriate allusion, as this family, and brother Kevin in particular, seems to be a nest of angry birds, contained for years by some force that in the final scene begins to fray.
He caved in like that, always giving up what he wanted, because our parents taught him that men should give up things and women should be given things. I remembered that later, the unfairness to both of us, how one person was given power and authority but forced to sacrifice personal desires, while the other person was made powerless but given the right to material things.
While Jane is a great character, I didn’t get enough of her to set the bait, and nowhere near enough to allow me to see past the abrupt ending. I’d love to know the mother better – and the father, who is only reflected in the family as the world is reflected off his coral BMW. I’m going to assume the novel starts from that ending, and covers the past more fully in flashbacks as it moves forward. Just from the few pages here, I’d heartily agree it’s ground worth exploring, as is the impact of those years on the present. And I have every reason, based on these glimmers here, to believe it will be far more satisfying as a novel.