Family matters

Eliza Minot’s tragedies of scale
By SHARON STEEL  |  August 8, 2006

SPARKS: For Minot’s Brambles, life’s series of minor heartbreaks can be as debilitating as the major tragedies.
The anticipation of grief has a way of amplifying regrets. How, for instance, does one cope with the death of a parent? Sometimes wading through nostalgia, picking apart what might have been, is easier than facing the pain of the present. At the start of one lazy summer, the three adult siblings in Eliza Minot’s second novel confront the doubts that paralyze them while they mourn their mother and watch their father die. There’s barely enough room for all the emotional cargo, so they pass their burdens back and forth, loading them on one another, earning some relief, then stumbling forward.

Minot is a suburban mother of five who says she sets aside — if she’s lucky — eight to nine hours a week to write. In a New York Times Magazine article written about her and her own siblings (four are writers), she said one reason she wanted at least five children was to give them a built-in network, to generate more love. This perspective is shared by Margaret Bramble Bright, the mother of three who’s The Brambles’ main character. Once a sexy urbanite who treated herself to expensive shoes, she simultaneously delights in and resents what her life has become, “behaving like a waitress, a handmaiden, a love slave, alternately ill-treated and then adored. . . . Part goddess, part foot soldier, every day varying, yet every day the same.” Margaret’s mood can hinge on whether she’s able to find the right brand of popsicles at the supermarket, and she throws herself further into the domestic pressure cooker by offering to take in her father, Arthur, who’s dying of cancer, a man she knows “intimately but hardly at all.”

Getting Arthur from the West Coast to New Jersey is only the first of the Brambles’ many collective struggles. Edie, single and childless, gets elected to shuttle him from California. Brother Max, a film producer who worships and fears his wife and hasn’t told her that he’s been unemployed for weeks, stays removed, trekking from city to suburb, too numbed by the plane crash that killed his mother and distracted by his marriage to grasp much else. Minot lingers on all three siblings with a delicious patience, burrowing into their psychology, then setting up odd, random events with tense connections: a car accident involving Margaret and a woman whom she’s never met but who seems to know her; the way Max is continually mistaken for a famous actor; the strange summer Edie spent with her godmother in Maine.

Given that Minot’s first book, The Tiny One, was written from the perspective of an eight-year-old girl whose mother has just passed away (Minot’s died when she was seven), it’s not surprising that the women and children of The Brambles are the most riveting characters. Of Edie, Minot writes: “She is alive and doesn’t know what to look for. She leans on the counter. She laughs harder and harder, her nose starting to run, her eyes watering, the muscles of her stomach beginning to burn. To be a grown adult and to feel so lonely. . . . It was just ridiculous.” It’s during these in-between moments, where life doesn’t so much ignite as spark, that the lyrical prose slices away at the mundane.

In the book’s final act, Minot reveals a family secret, one that takes the Brambles by surprise while still preserving some ambiguity about their relationship with their parents. This revelation doesn’t match the exquisite pathos of the build-up. But in Minot’s telling, that’s not a disappointment. Instead, it’s her assurance that life’s endless, minor heartbreaks and private failures can be the toughest to get over. When we do, the payoff trumps surviving even first-class tragedies.

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