Skeletons in the closet aren’t just for Halloween. Perfection is seductive, but it’s fleeting: It seems like we can’t go a day without a fave proving him or herself to be deeply problematic. While this is upsetting in a real-life situation, in fiction it can turn a regular story into a must-read. The three new novels in this week’s book club all feature families that threaten to self-destruct over secrets and tragedies that come to light.
1. Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda ($27): Skeletons often hide behind a perfect veneer, and the title of this book is definitely an ironic one, as it applies to “perfect couple” Paul and Mia Strom. On the surface, things look great: They have a long-term marriage, two boys, and a big house in a nice suburb. Mia is a beautiful housewife (okay, she’s been sick, but she’s starting to feel better) and Paul makes a good salary. Now the boys are with a babysitter and Paul is driving Mia out for a lovely weekend at their lake house. Everything is under control… Paul’s control. The best day ever, it turns out, is only “best” by Paul’s definition, and things have to be pretty specific to meet his approval.
Paul, narrating the book, might make your skin crawl a bit: “I am the perfect husband. I smile as one of the songs from our early dating days comes on. There’s an art to creating the perfect playlist. This song, ‘Unforgettable,’ was the soundtrack to our first night together. Innocent Mia, a virgin even after four years of college, somehow untouched by all of those lecherous fraternity guys. She was waiting for someone older, someone sophisticated, someone who could take care of her. She was waiting for me.” Full of himself, oily, and unreliable in his description of events, he lets us see how a person can twist anything to his own ends.
Things quickly go from best to bad to worse in this psychological thriller, as more and more is revealed about Paul’s past and actions. Luckily, Mia is perhaps not as innocent and pliable as Paul gives her credit for. Best Day Ever is a deconstruction of the aspects we’ve been conditioned to think go into an aspirational life on the surface, and an examination of the darkest betrayals we perpetrate on those closest to us.
2. Risking It All by Nina Darnton ($17): Acclaimed author Darnton’s recent volume charts a couple on the rocks after years of inability to conceive a child. New Yorkers Jeff and Marcia Naiman try absolutely every tool in the pregnancy arsenal, but nothing works, not even the two IVF procedures that drain their savings. Marcia becomes desperate; despite her great job and solid marriage, a child means everything to her. Though Jeff believes they can be a happy family as a couple, she won’t put the issue to rest.
Jeff thinks surrogacy is “wrong. It’s exploitative. It’s rich people renting the wombs of poor people who do it only because they need the money,” but the drive that helped Marcia to succeed in her career makes her a formidable debater. Promising psychological testing and no contact with the surrogate after the birth, Marcia selects a woman in California as a surrogate and convinces Jeff to agree to try once more to expand their family.
Readers may already be uneasy with Marcia’s tactics and what that might mean for the Naimans’ marriage, and things are only compounded by a gut-wrenching tragedy. The adage “be careful what you wish for” would seem to apply to apply here with a vengeance. Eve, the surrogate, enters into the bargain to provide a better life for her son Danny, and Marcia wants a child of her own. When Eve dies in childbirth, Danny gets a different life and Jeff and Marcia get a child, only it’s not the solution any of them wanted. The new family is forced to learn to live with each other, and Marcia and Jeff must deal with Danny’s pain and truly put the needs of another first. With serious thoughts about the fraught morality of surrogacy and its roots in the class struggle, this is a family drama that may stay with you for some time.
3. The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall ($28): George Woodbury is a “man of distinction” in his community. A science teacher at Avalon Hills prep school, he once famously managed to tackle a man who stalked the hallways with a rifle, stopping a potential school shooting. The media attention died down in the following decade, but the accolades didn’t; a perennial “Teacher of the Year,” he has a perfect life and family. His loving wife, named Joan, is a talented nurse; his son Andrew is a successful lawyer, and his daughter Sadie is smart and popular. You may be able to guess what happens next: On Sadie’s 17th birthday, George is suddenly charged with sexual misconduct by several female students at her high school, and their world explodes.
In a refreshing change from the usual, the novel’s focus is not on George’s voice and take on the events (save that, awaiting his trial, he protests his innocence), but instead on the experience of his family and how their lives are irrevocably altered by the news. Because of this, we see the emotional impact of society’s need to devour and exploit these kinds of stories. A novelist tries to use the family for writing fodder, and Men’s Rights Activists seek allies in George’s family. Sadie and Joan’s friends fade away quickly; Andrew comes back from New York to face an overgrown echo of the childhood bullying he left behind.
“As George was being processed at the police station, it seemed to Joan that everyone in the town knew immediately. She was not certain how it happened, because she sure didn’t tell anyone, but everyone knew almost as soon as she did. They talked. It must have felt nearly involuntary — it was simply too beyond the realm of possibility to not talk about. Humans crave connection, after all, even when it’s about another’s misfortune. Perhaps especially then.” A finalist for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, The Best Kind of People explores the breaking point of family loyalty, and the boundary between the rape culture that creates a knee-jerk sympathy for the accused, and the witch hunt culture that causes snap judgments about anyone in his circle.
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