It is summer 1976, and Edgar, Fern and their three children are relaxing at their Martha’s Vineyard beach house. On the morning of Edgar’s 32nd birthday, the family lawyer calls and spoils the fun by informing them that all their money is gone.
Appalled at the grim prospect of cutting short his burgeoning career as a writer and moving from Cambridge, Mass., to Chicago to take over his father’s steel company, Edgar goes off alone and promises to be back in a couple of hours. Instead, he heads to a party and stumbles home at dawn — in between meeting and enjoying a night of passion with glamorous Glory, who, he learns, is also married, also lives in Cambridge and is keen to hook up with him again.
A dried-up family fortune and the first cracks in a marriage are the twin calamities that open Ramona Ausubel’s “Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty.” It is Ausubel’s third book, and it couldn’t be more different from the two that preceded it.
Her debut novel, “No One Is Here Except All of Us” (2012), focused on the inhabitants of a Jewish village in Romania who are inspired by a strange visitor to reinvent their history. Her follow-up, “A Guide to Being Born” (2013), was a collection of short stories structured around the life-cycle stages of conception, gestation and birth. The novel felt like a series of intricately embroidered myths and fables. The short stories explored human relations with accompanying oddball flourishes.
In her new book, Ausubel’s approach is straight storytelling that mines emotional truth without recourse to fabrication or the fantastic. After a caught-in-the-act showdown, Edgar and Fern go their separate ways, he on a boat bound for Bermuda with Glory (“less woman than invention”), she on a road trip West with a gentle giant called Mac. The problem is each thinks the other is at home with the children.
While Edgar finds himself at sea, literally and figuratively, and Fern notches up a series of cross-country adventures, 9-year-old Cricket is left to look after her two younger siblings and wonder why her parents have turned them into orphans.
Ausubel alternates her drama, detailing in one chapter the next stage of the family unraveling in 1976, and in the next describing how the family formed in the late 1960s. Both time frames have their fair share of fresh, witty and skillfully imagined scenes, from young Edgar dodging Vietnam and ending up “a misplaced toy soldier” in Alaska, to Fern going into labor and having her twins delivered by the two Swedish men who have come to assemble her desk.
One pivotal scene fails to convince — a dinner party that almost descends into a swingers’ evening — due to Edgar’s implausible behavior. Otherwise, Ausubel’s characters steer her bold and absorbing novel and keep us emotionally invested in their foibles, ideals and desires.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty
By: Ramona Ausubel.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 308 pages, $27