Violet Baumgartner — devoted wife, fiercely overprotective mother and stalwart member of the community — pens her annual Christmas greetings with celebratory flair, but not without due humility:
“I know my modest little Christmas correspondences can’t hold a candle to your day-to-day joys and sorrows,” she writes.
Her most recent letter focuses on her brilliant husband Ed’s retirement after a stellar career. “Time to celebrate,” she writes, not knowing that Ed’s grand black-tie gala would set off a series of regrettable events, upending her abiding sense of probity.
In her funny, affectionate debut novel, “Evergreen Tidings From the Baumgartners,” Minnesota writer Gretchen Anthony makes good use of Violet’s glowing accolades as a counterpoint to the dysfunctional family’s discord.
It would be easy and less satisfying if the novel were solely a riff on Violet’s self-congratulatory missives and her need to control loved ones’ lives. The humor here is a path to something deeper. The letters, it turns out, reveal more than intended about their author.
In between Violet’s breezy lines touting Ed’s important work, daughter Cerise’s academic honors and plum job, and her own modest efforts as a volunteer in worthy causes, are hints of unresolved family issues and her insecurities in facing them. Although she puts a good face on it, Violet is troubled by the growing distance between her and her daughter.
Cerise is pregnant, but she and her partner, Barb, plan to hold off telling the parents until after the big party. A rude guest’s inappropriate announcement that the Baumgartners are about to become grandparents sends Violet into a furious, emotional tailspin. Hearing such personal news in this way instead of from her daughter is beyond the pale.
But never mind. It’s full steam ahead. Violet’s obsession on learning, against the couple’s wishes, the identity of her grandchild’s father, presumably to check out his heritage, brings to the surface her ambivalence toward her daughter’s relationship with Barb, whose role she has yet to acknowledge. Hurt feelings, resentments and disagreements put all but the sanguine Ed, who tries to keep the peace, on edge.
A diverting subplot involving family friends and their son, and the awkward appearance of Barb’s long absent, insufferable, self-indulgent hippie parents, add to the general chaos.
Part social farce, part family drama, this openhearted, entertaining novel shows an often wrongheaded, annoyingly intrusive but caring matriarch and her family willing to have the difficult, honest conversations needed to work through their misunderstandings and reach harmony.
Wisconsin critic Elfrieda Abbe last reviewed “The Honey Farm” on these pages.
Evergreen Tidings From the Baumgartners
By: Gretchen Anthony.
Publisher: Park Row Books, 384 pages, $16.99.
Events: Book launch, 6:30 p.m. Oct. 16, Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls.; reading, 7 p.m. Oct. 24, Subtext Books, 6 W. 5th St., St. Paul.