Literature is written by orphans and poor relations. In the best stories, the setting is a large neglected house inhabited by a neglected child. Rich relatives have stolen her birthright. The parents are either absent or absent-minded. They allowed these things to happen. The figures exercising control are impatient and unfair, working from incomprehensible rules, and resentment is the engine of the plot.
Alexandra Aldrich’s story is flavored with the same assortment of guilts and injustices. Here the family battlefield is called Rokeby, a famous Hudson River mansion set in large, leafy grounds, built by a distant ancestor who was President James Madison’s secretary of war.
Grandmother Claire, who is odd and lovely and alcoholic, lives in the gatehouse, and her two sons share title to the mansion where the author is growing up. The younger one, Uncle Harry, works in New York and sends his daughters to expensive schools. He pays Rokeby’s large tax bill, keeping careful track of what his brother is unable to pay, leveraging this disadvantage with an eye to eviction. The narrator’s father, Teddy, Harvard-educated, fluent in five languages, does the upkeep on the falling-down property but cannot keep up. He is charming but seldom bathes. If he were not an aristocrat, he would be called shiftless. We see two brothers who could represent the owning class and the underclass, but the young girl telling the story cannot explain why toiling with backhoes and tractors and repairing the plumbing yield less status than manipulating money.
Readers always side with Cinderella, and Cassandra Mortmain, and Mary Lennox, and Jane Eyre. We wish for things to turn out all right, or to go entertainingly wrong. Either way, decaying grandeur is much more interesting than grandeur in perfect repair. It yields suspense, hope, envy, sorrow, vulnerability and the kind of anger that protagonists must have if they’re not to be boring. Crucial elements emerge inadvertently, perhaps cunningly, overheard by the uncomprehending child on the stairs at a boozy party. If this were a perfect story it would be fiction. Real stories are too complicated to be irresistible or pell-mell or worked out. Is this story about Rokeby or Aldrich? It unfolds lazily as remembered episodes braided together by setting, but judicious as she is, witnesses are never perfect. Aldrich tries to sort out whether Grandmother’s attempts to get rid of Dad’s neglected old horse deserved what Dad did to his mother’s dog, and whether that justified Grandmother doing away with his goats. Does a square dance justify murdering a pig? (At Rokeby, pigs are murdered in abandoned Volvos.)
“The Astor Orphans” is wearying, gorgeous, ugly, sad, bohemian and only mildly sordid or scandalous by TV or literary standards. Readers from stable, boring suburban families dream of exotic lives like this — we’ve grown up on the standard literature — but won’t want this one. Much happens but nothing changes because it isn’t a novel. In the end, the heroine gets away. The End.
Eric Hanson is an illustrator and author in Minneapolis. He recently designed the cover for former Random House editor Daniel Menaker’s forthcoming memoir.