“Nothing was more terrifying than what families could do to each other.”
I’ve had a problem with a certain type of novel for a few years now: I’ve found that I have this enormous struggle reading books about white dudes who can’t get their shit together. Why? Because these white guys who can’t grow up or refuse to grow up are so ridiculously privileged and society basically gives them a pass for being assholes simply because of their whiteness combined with their maleness. So many books are published about these dudes. Their stories, with all their degrees of sameness, keep multiplying at a staggering rate. They are represented in literature well beyond reason and beyond the actual market share of white men who can’t get their shit together. I can only assume that’s the result of decades of society telling us that this is the narrative of our country. Gaze upon what you have done, John Updike, and weep. Mind you, I say all this as a white male, but a gay one (and hopefully an enlightened one).
The reason I’m telling you this is that this very narrative could have driven Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty right off the rails. That it doesn’t is a tribute to Ramona Ausubel’s powers as an author. You see, at its heart, this book is about Fern and Edgar, a couple who have never really had to work a day in their lives. They’ve been able to live off of Fern’s wealthy parents while Fern raises their three children and Edgar pretends to reject everything his steel magnate father represents (even as he still occasionally accepts his money) by writing a novel about a son who rejects his steel magnate father on moral grounds and chooses to live a principled and penniless life. That Edgar is not actually penniless does bother him, but does not impede his ability to feel sanctimonious. Now that novel is getting ready for publication (it took Edgar more than a decade to write thanks to his frequent vacations and loose working schedule).
Now Fern and Edgar receive a phone call from a lawyer after the death of Fern’s parents informing them that the money is all gone. The unthinkable has happened. They can either learn how to struggle and be poor like everyone else or they can go groveling back to Edgar’s parents (and cancel the publication of his novel). Stunned, Fern and Edgar fracture–running off with others, he with a serial adulterer named Glory and she with a giant on a road trip to see his son in California, and accidentally leaving their three children alone at home to fend for themselves–each mistakenly assuming the other is home to do the work they are at least temporarily forsaking.
Don’t you feel primed to despise Fern and Edgar? Don’t you feel that a novel about them would be a waste unless that novel was three short chapters of people telling these insufferable rich layabouts to just fuck right off?
If the novel was only about Edgar, you might be right. He’s exactly the kind of white dude who can’t get his shit together who put me off stories like his. Thankfully, there’s Fern and Ausubel herself, who goes deeper into the premise of her novel by making each character have a complex relationship with their privilege, then repeatedly compromising it. Even Edgar, with his morose novel-writing and curiously lazy ambitions toward revolution. His mythic novel becomes his outlet for the life he is unable to allow himself to pursue (“Edgar was trying to write himself a way to exist”). Suddenly Fern and (perhaps reluctantly) Edgar aren’t rich-people archetypes to hate. They’re deeply felt people with aspirations and failures and fears that make them insufferable and beautiful at the same time. The deep family life and internal struggles they go through are suddenly rendered striking and profound.
No small dose of this goes to Ausubel’s understanding of a woman’s complex role in society, including in wealthy society. Fern, Fern’s mother, Edgar’s mother, and Fern’s daughter Cricket all make pointed statements about the world they inhabit that are far more interesting than anything Edgar could ever say with his more cliched Daddy issues.
Unfortunately, the woman in Edgar’s plotline, Glory, starts out strong but peters out as the novel progresses–perhaps succumbing to the weight of Edgar’s melodrama. Whenever the novel turned to Edgar and Glory I found myself flipping ahead to see how long it would take to get back to Fern. As time goes by the same ends up happening with Cricket’s plotline for me, which has odd meanderings into Native American lore that are supposed to elevate Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty to Americana mythos (I think), but never connect much at all. I could have edited the giant out of the novel too, even though I suspect Ausubel loved the parallel between him and Fern in their status as parents–him going toward his son, Fern running away from her children.
In the end, the only plotline that really matters is Fern’s. And Fern’s mother’s, I suppose, and Edgar’s insomuch as it relates to Fern. Those parts are, ahem, rich as can be. The rest is beautiful from far away but loses focus when you get up close.