The Forrest family has recently emigrated from New York City to Auckland, New Zealand. There’s parents, Frank and Lee, brother, Michael, older sisters, Dorothy and Evelyn and younger sister, Ruthie. And now there’s Michael’s new friend, Daniel.
The novel follows the family’s fortunes – from Frank’s return to New York and Lee and the children’s time in a women’s commune to Frank’s return following the literal loss of their fortune and then on, focusing in on Dorothy and Evelyn through to Dorothy’s old age.
Their story seems to be relentlessly grim – there is always loss of some form to contend with – but I don’t mind grim. However, I do have two issues with the book.
The more minor of the two is with some of the writing. Occasionally it is overwritten. Take this passage for example:
The onions in the wicker basket were firm, golden orbs, crunchy green beneath the skin where the knife sliced in and left pungent milky droplets on the chopping board. At the industrial-sized oven she turned on the dials, stiff with trapped food crumbs and kept chopping. The chopped onions were soft and translucent in the frying pan. The kitchen smelled of their cooking and of melted cheese. There was a tumbling sound as she tipped dried macaroni into the boiling water, which fizzed up and almost over the rim of the saucepan in a rush of white froth. The salt shaker clogged in the steam.
And so on. Now that I can live with, this is only Perkins’ second novel after all. However, my second issue is much larger.
Early on in the novel, it becomes clear that Michael’s new friend, Daniel has invaded the Forrests’ life. This passage occurs just after Frank has left for New York.
The first morning Frank was gone, their mother woke early to hear someone in the house, moving around downstairs…That boy, Daniel, sat at the table with his back to her. She took in his slim shoulders, the newspaper in front of him, steam rising from the kettle. He was writing on the paper and when she said, ‘Good morning’, and walked around the side of the table he smiled and said, ‘Hi, Lee. Hope you don’t mind me doing the crossword.’
Daniel then goes with the family to the commune and is the person who takes charge when Frank eventually returns. Before long he is dating Dorothy, although they try to keep it hidden from the rest of the family. When the family begins to disperse, the children turning into young adults and starting their own lives, we follow Evelyn to a ski resort where she is the housekeeper at one of the lodges, a job she shares with her boyfriend, Daniel.
We then follow Dorothy to the age of 25 and now pregnant. The father of her baby is her future husband, Andrew. They go out for a meal with both sets of parents to celebrate and who should they bump into…
‘What are you eating?’ Daniel asked. Without thinking Dorothy leaned across the table towards him and held her chopsticks forward, the piece of gingery chicken wedged between them. Her arm outstretched. It was just for a second but she knew the table froze. Family members poised motionless, watching. Daniel held Dorothy’s gaze, his eyes dark and steady as he ate the mouthful from her chopsticks.
Dorothy and Evelyn spend their entire lives obsessed with Daniel, even when they are married to other men whom they have children with. They always seem to be waiting to either hear from him or see him and it is the way that these women define themselves in relation to him – and the way that every other woman in the novel is defined in relation to a man – that made me want to throw the book across the room. Disappointing and frustrating.
Edit: It has been pointed out to me (via Twitter) that Daniel appears at a defining moment in Dorothy and Evelyn’s lives and that’s why they feel the need to keep in touch with him. I’m cold and heartless and can’t understand why you’d want to keep in touch with a first love when you’ve moved on, married and had children, particularly not to the extent that these women crave contact with Daniel, but maybe that’s a defect on my part.