Novels, like music and movies, have their retro-chic moments — styles and plots that fall out of fashion can return with surprising force.
Ted Thompson’s likable debut novel, “The Land of Steady Habits,” is set in the present day and is concerned with a postrecession upper-middle-class family that’s coming apart at the seams. But between the novel’s exact, gimlet-eyed, lightly satirical prose and its focus on good Connecticut families, it feels more like a ’60s morality play. Its Westport setting might as well be renamed Updikeville or Cheever Heights.
Undoing all this suburban comfort is Anders Hill, a self-made man who made a bundle in finance, largely by engineering the kind of bad mortgages that helped sink the economy. Regretful, retired, distant from his wife, Helene, and two sons, he asks for a divorce and moves to a condo to “get on with the business of actually being himself.”
Anders is angry and prone to embarrassment (a rare hard-drinking night goes poorly), but Thompson successfully frames him as both a misanthrope and a sympathetic icon of bottled frustration. Glum commuters like him spill out of trains “like a gutted fish.” Love like his “evaporated like ethanol in a cupped palm.”
Anders’ acting-out tests the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief.
What well-bred retiree does hard drugs with the prep-school-aged son of a family friend, or steals his therapist’s coffee-table books for no good reason? Anders’ unraveling, abandoning his wife (who quickly reconnected with his college roommate) and then pleading for her return, is hyperinflated to make it easier to mock, or at least reveal his hypocrisy. (Anders’ high ideals get revised when he realizes his post-divorce bundle isn’t big enough.)
But Thompson wants us to take the Hill family seriously, too: Helene endured a double mastectomy, and their wayward son Preston has been an emotional and financial drain for years. In Preston, Thompson cannily shows how easily wealth prompts lassitude: “He’d grown up in a world so fiercely dedicated to maintaining its own privilege that it practically begged any thinking creature to disrupt it.”
This is a tricky balancing act for Thompson: He wants to satirize privilege and, like Cheever and Updike before him, give it its due, show how precisely it functions. Thompson doesn’t always have the subtlety of his predecessors, at times shifting gears hard from comedy to pathos. But “The Land of Steady Habits” is an effective retort to the novels that make suburbs into symbols of mindless ease. Anders is too well-off to be an everyman, but Thompson thoughtfully locates the common ground between his fears and ours.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Phoenix.