As with the fiction of Julia Glass and Bonnie Burnard, Meg Mitchell Moore is interested in what makes families work.
That’s not to say that they always work well: when The Arrivals opens, some aspects of family life are taut and strained.
Lillian, with daughter Olivia (three and five-eighths old) and infant Philip (pre-feeding-schedule), has arrived on her parents’ doorstep.
Motherhood: it’s tiring. And, even before the subject of how long Lillian plans to stay comes up, her own mother, Ginny, is tired too.
It’s a kind of tired that Ginny remembers. A kind of tired that Ginny thought was behind her.
“Ginny’s eyes were closed. Her words came out in a fragmented way; it was as if she were speaking through a net. She wore a sleeveless nightgown of a color that had once been a vibrant blue but had long ago faded to muted gray.”
Daughter Lillian is sleeping in the den when William observes his wife like that. It’s a detailed description, not overly poetic, but attending to the minutiae of daily life.
Does it matter that her nightgown is sleeveless? Perhaps not, but it reminds the reader that The Arrivals is set in the summer (June, July and August).
And it’s not necessarily important that the fabric has faded in colour, but it also reflects the wearer’s stage of life and, to some extent, her values. Ginny doesn’t replace something for the sake of replacing it; she works to maintain, and when she treats herself to a cranberry-coloured washer-dryer set, it stands out.
Ginny and William’s colonial home is now, normally, a tidy and peaceful place. The busy-ness of parenting is ostensibly behind them.
Ginny muses: “In the moment, you were often too tired to enjoy watching your children turn into people.” It’s hectic, demanding, overwhelming, exhausting.
But, then, “suddenly everyone had cleared out, flung themselves into the big world, two of them to New York City, Lillian to Massachusetts, calling, sure, e-mailing often, even visiting, but they were gone, truly gone, replaced by the silence – beautiful and blessed, of course, but still, sometimes, she had to admit, strange and unnatural.”
That’s how it has been, with Lillian in Massachusetts with a husband and two children of her own, Stephen with his wife (a pregnant professional, struggling to determine whether that’s an oxymoron) and Rachel, who is working as a junior casting director, in New York City.
But that’s not how it is this summer. For a variety of reasons, Lillian and Stephen and Rachel all come home for an undefined period of time.
Well, in the case of Stephen and Jane, it was clearly defined; they were coming for a weekend, but things happen. Lillian and Rachel weren’t so much coming home as running away, pushing something else into the background of their lives.
“It seemed to Lillian now to have happened so quickly, the transition from what she was then – the carefree girl with the peanut butter sandwich – to what she was now. Did it feel that way to everyone? Was this just life?”
In The Arrivals, every character is afforded some room in the prose, even minor characters who might have easily been defined by a disappointment or a transgression.
Sometimes these characters can offer a perspective that is not available to the reader within the confines of the colonial Vermont home that provides the backdrop to the bulk of the scenes.
For instance, the perspective of Tom, Lillian’s husband, who is largely off-stage, because Lillian has left him behind in Massachusetts, offers a glimpse into her life as a married woman with a home of her own, even if she is more akin to the girl-with-the-peanut-butter-sandwich when readers get to know her.
“Lillian’s eyes were closed too, her mouth was open, and her chin was tipped back. She was deeply asleep. He placed the glass on the table on a coaster and stood for a minute, considering them: mother and child. He felt a surge of emotion that later, when he examined it in the darkness of their bedroom, with Lillian sleep beside him, he could identify only as loneliness.”
Although the novel begins and ends with William and Ginny, the narrative is shared amongst the characters, each of whom has a parent, each of whom is growing and parenting themselves (in both literal and figurative ways).
“It was funny, the way your adult children could both delight and annoy you in the very same ways that they had when they had been actual children. He wouldn’t have predicted that particular truth of parenting, thirty years ago.”
It’s particularly interesting to watch as the generational lines intersect, as William and Ginny do (and do not) interact (or interfere) with their children and their partners.
Much of the conflict in the narrative is rooted in the tension that develops between family members as the once quiet and peaceful home becomes increasingly busy and chaotic.
But the anger and disappointment in this novel feels very different from that in books with feature family tension by Jonathan Franzen and David Adams Richards. The fictional real estate is similar, but it’s tended here in a style more akin to Margaret Drabble or Marina Endicott.
When the patriarch, William, finds it all-a-little-much in Meg Mitchell Moore’s novel, he goes for ice cream, and he doesn’t tell anyone he’s going. But on this day, he takes his son, Stephen, and he tries to explain his need for escape. They have, undoubtedly, gone for ice cream many times together, but never under such circumstances as these.
“Because then I don’t have to see if your mother wants to go, or arrange to bring something back for her if she doesn’t, or explain why I want an ice cream, or feel guilty for having it, or wonder if she’s thinking about my cholesterol. Which makes me think about my cholesterol. It’s just easier, sometimes, to go out on my own.”
But Stephen feels differently. He is slightly horrified by what his father has confided: “’Is that what marriage becomes, in the end?’ Guilt over an ice cream? Hiding on a picnic bench somewhere by yourself?”
Still, Stephen’s response is not uncomplicated. “And yet there was William, licking away, as happy as a little boy, so who was Stephen to begrudge him his small pleasures?”
Perhaps he feels differently because he is expecting, with Jane, his first child. Perhaps he simply views the world from a different perspective, regardless of ages and stages. Perhaps this is just a conversation about ice cream.
“‘That’s not all marriage becomes,’ said William. ‘And I don’t consider this the end.'”
And, it is not. Not an end. Meg Mitchell Moore‘s The Arrivals is about a family, in process.
They are perpetually arriving: sometimes sad, sometimes frustrated, sometimes invigorated.
Have you read this one? Or perhaps her latest, So Far Away? More about that one next week!