Coming to grips with loss haunts the characters of our fall books.
What makes a story memorable? Vivid characters stay with us long after plot details fade. Every writer must fashion flesh, bone, and spirit from words. But author truly becomes alchemist when he breathes life into characters and creates people we connect with, ones we can’t seem to forget.
Model Home (Scribner, 2010), the confidently crafted first novel from Eric Puchner ’93, is an absorbing tale about a troubled suburban family. Puchner populates his fictional universe with an extraordinary array of eccentric yet believable individuals. The distinctly drawn characters have quirks and foibles aplenty. But their strangeness engages, rather than alienates, the reader. The author uses humor and a keen insight into human behavior to help us understand them from the inside.
The five members of the Ziller family often behave strangely. Since their move from Wisconsin to tony Palos Verdes, California, they seem to orbit their home more than inhabit it. The separate paths of two parents and three kids rarely intersect.
In moving, dad Warren wanted to provide them all with a better life by pursuing a classic version of the American dream: go West, and make a fortune in real estate. By the summer of 1985, however, his dream has become a nightmare. A toxic waste dump is opening next to the community of affordable homes he has just built. He has invested everything in the now worthless development.
Warren’s immediate goal is to keep his family in the dark about their impending bankruptcy. It is surprisingly easy, with wife Camille and the kids distracted by their own pursuits and problems.
Camille, an earnest public school health educator, struggles to avoid controversy while making a sex-ed film, Earth to My Body: What’s Happening? Son Dustin, 17, keeps busy with surfing, girl trouble, and his garage band, Toxic Shock Syndrome. Daughter Lyle, 16, makes lists of things she hates—CALIFORNIA merits all caps—and secretly dates the neighborhood’s security guard. Warren borrows Lyle’s old Renault when he pretends his Chrysler, repossessed by the bank, is stolen. Its decor reflects her caustic worldview: “A half-naked Barbie dangled from the mirror, twirling from a shoelace noosed around her neck.”
Baby brother Jonas, 11, seems “macabre and friendless,” even to his own father. He dresses head to toe in orange and obsesses over news of a local girl who has disappeared. “I was thinking whether it was worse to be eaten by sharks or to get picked apart by vultures,” he announces one afternoon at the beach.
The kids do vaguely notice that “something weird’s going on with Dad.” By the time the Zillers go on their annual camping trip to Joshua Tree, they’ve all had such a stressful summer that the need to confess erupts around the campfire. Warren begins to unburden himself, and “he couldn’t stop. It was like sledding down a hill.” The truth, however dire, brings them closer than they’ve been in years. But when the Zillers return home, a terrible accident proves far more devastating than financial ruin.
Model Home doesn’t have a magic happy ending. The bad things that have befallen the family can’t be undone. Because Puchner’s characters see the absurdity and irony around them, however, their wry observations keep tragedy from eclipsing the novel’s plucky tone. For example, Warren has to recite cheesy maxims while training as a door-to-door knife salesman, the only job he can find after his real estate venture collapses. He wonders “if losing your last shred of dignity in a place where no one was capable of perceiving its demise was like a tree falling in a forest.”
Puchner paints the Zillers as survivors. They don’t escape unscathed, but they maintain enough wit and perspective to hang on. And they gain a little more understanding and forgiveness—for each other, and for themselves.
Shakespeare knew four centuries ago that “everyone can master a grief but he that has it.” In the Bard’s time, childbirth often imperiled a woman’s life, something mercifully uncommon in modern America. Losing Charlotte (Knopf, 2010), the debut novel from Heather Clay ’93, brilliantly captures a family’s anguish when a new mother dies from a rare complication shortly after having twins. Husband, parents, siblings—each processes grief in idiosyncratic, unpredictable ways. “No one’s normal,” admits Robbie a few weeks after his sister’s death.
Losing the vibrant, quirky Charlotte launches the moving, well-told story. However the death itself doesn’t take place until almost halfway through the novel, and the first 100-plus pages contain many detours and digressions. Lengthy anecdotes from the sisters’ Kentucky childhood and the young couple’s New York City courtship and marriage greatly slow the initial storytelling and risk losing readers before they reach the ultimately compelling tale that follows.
Clay focuses heavily on the relationship between Charlotte and her younger sister, Knox, documenting how the sisters were opposites, in personality and behavior, as they grew up together on their parents’ horse farm. But chunky paragraphs of description and analysis interrupt the narrative flow.
The story springs to life, however, with Charlotte’s shocking death. Clay’s writing gains pace and poignancy as her characters reveal themselves through action—or inaction. Knox and Robbie numb themselves watching mindless reality TV programs they “can’t quite understand the purpose of.” Their father rarely leaves his room, “stay[ing] in bed for most of the time . . . a prone shape in the half dark.”
Charlotte’s widower Bruce, who has instantly become the single father of two boys, has no choice but to take action. In the hospital, he does briefly consider that “his previously unlimited choices had narrowed to two: either he could force one of the nonoperating windows here open and let himself fall through space toward the barges on the silent, beautiful river, or go through the rest of life this way.”
Clay’s matter-of-fact, affecting chronicle of Bruce’s predicament quickly gives the novel page-turning momentum. In the Manhattan neonatal intensive care unit, Bruce finds himself “an emissary from the VIP section of the obstetrics wing, closed off to the plebes with a velvet rope fashioned out of everybody’s worst nightmare.” He gains an unexpected ally in Knox. She has firmly declared herself “not a baby person,” yet arrives to help him care for the twins when they are released from the NICU.
Bruce and Knox hardly know each other—the sisters were virtually estranged before Charlotte’s death—yet, they become a surprising, seamless team as they spend unfathomably grueling, incredibly intimate time tending to the motherless preemies. Taking care of the babies’ relentless needs becomes Bruce’s anesthetic, Knox’s penance, and their unspoken joint process of grieving for Charlotte.
The second half of the tale is beautifully told and leaves the reader wanting more. The process of grief is unique, solitary, painful, and rarely discussed. And it is difficult to understand, let alone describe. In Losing Charlotte, Clay eloquently illuminates the darkness.
Reviewing the Skull (WordTech Editions, 2010) by Judy Rowe Michaels ’66
Artist Against All Odds: The Story of Robert Strong Woodward (Paideia Publishers, 2009) by Janet Gerry ’77
To Join the Lost (Antrim House, 2010) by Seth Steinzor ’74
The Lawns of Lobstermen: Poems from the Maine Coast and Belgrade Lakes (Moon Pie Press, 2010) by Douglas Woodsum ’82
1809 Thunder on the Danube (Frontline/Pen&Sword, 2008–10) by John Gill ’77