Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What are You Doing on for the Fourth of July Weekend?

Parades, fireworks, picnics, we sure have a idyllic vision of July Fourth weekend. The beaches and parks fill up, folks head to their cabins and lake homes, and most of the time, there’s a long weekend if you’re not in retail. And in Milwaukee, there’s Summerfest too. We tend not to book too many events during the period, not just because people are away (look at our packed schedule for the rest of the month) but because the news hole is full for events during Summerfest—there’s simply too much going on for any of our traveling authors to get any press at all.

And because it is such an outdoor holiday without a lot of gift giving, not much is published for the season. There are a few cookbooks, most notably this year, Martha's American Food: A Celebration of Our Nation's Most Treasured Dishes, from Coast to Coast, which was published last April to cover Memorial through Labor Day. And every few years we will cobble together some books about American history, a flag book, a pocket Constitution, and quirky book on fireworks.

But interestingly enough, the novels set during this period, at least the ones I read, tend to play off the holiday in contrary ways. Instead of the holiday bringing families together, they are torn asunder.

Take Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You, just released. It’s his follow-up to the New York Times notable novel, Matrimony, and in some ways, it could be titled Matrimony II: The Next Generation. Marilyn and David have gathered the family of the July Fourth weekend at their bucolic home in Lenox, Massachusetts (that’s the Berkshires, for Midwesterners and other folks like me who haven’t been to Jacob’s Pillow).

But the reason for the gathering is a memorial to Leo, their journalist son who died the year before. And it’s worse than that—they don’t want to tell their three surviving daughters and one daughter-in-law that they are splitting up.

And that’s just the beginning of the trouble. Their oldest, Clarissa, has gotten the baby bug, and with her on the verge of forty, things aren’t going well. Their youngest, Noelle, already has four sons with her husband Amram (nee Arthur) and their move to Israel and Orthodox Judaism has left the rest of the family scrambling to accommodate them. And the middle child Lily? She wants no part of marriage or children with her partner Malcolm; she feels betrayed by one sibling and continually exasperated by the other.

Oh, and Leo’s widow Thisbe and her son Calder are sort of lost in the shuffle. Nobody’s happy that they moved to California, and they’ll probably be less happy when they find out she’s got a new boyfriend.

That’s the setup, and of course allegiances shift, tempers flare, and decisions, once confident, begin to waver. I like the way Henkin plays with family dynamics, and there’s a graceful humor that while not as manic comic as Jonathan Tropper or as spirited as Cathleen Schine (to note two authors who have had success following fractured Tribes), has a lightheartedness in its dysfunction, compared to say, Franzen. And of course I also thought about The Big Chill as I was reading this, and other novels where the unifying protagonist is, well, gone.

But their Fourth of July is nothing compared to the Dunnes of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, only out for a couple of weeks and already #2 on The New York Times bestseller list.. Flynn, as folks might know, is also the author of Sharp Objects and Dark Places, and has received acclaim from Stephen King and Kate Atkinson.

Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott meet cute in New York. They’re both writers, and she’s the inspiration for a series of Amazing Amy novels that have left her family quite comfortable, and Nick and Amy with a row house on the Brooklyn promenade.

But then they each lose their jobs in succession, the Amy series hits a rough patch, Nick’s dad deteriorates from Alzheimer’s, and his mom is diagnosed with cancer. With no other options, they head back to a suburban Hannibal, Missouri for a life of domestic anti-bliss, with Nick opening a bar with the last of Amy’s trust fund, and Amy choosing to be a housewife.

It’s Fourth of July weekend, and Nick gets a call at the bar from a neighbor. The door is open, the cat’s on the stoop, and Amy is gone. He heads back home and slowly realizes that he’s the prime suspect. But there are some clues, mostly in the form of an anniversary treasure hunt that Amy’s put together.

The story is told with Nick’s narrative punctuated with entries from Amy’s diary. And then we realize that there are a lot of change-ups in store, as Flynn has put the “psycho” back in psychological thriller. This is Scenes from a Marriage on acid, the portrait of a very unpleasant couple. Not the folks you want to picnic with. But it’s also a fun joyride, with sympathies careening from one spouse to the other, and a delightful parody of Nancy Grace to boot.

What’s fascinating about this thriller is at its core, it’s as much about marriage, couple hood, and parenting choices as Henkin’s novel. We make decisions about folks when we’re dating, we try to become the person they want, they do the same, and we’re all disappointed when reality sets in.

Both are pretty swell books that touch on similar themes, and make great reads for your July Fourth vacation. It’s just a question of how distorted you want your lens—magnified but realistic, or fun house mirror.

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