In Lynn Steger Strong's third novel, three siblings — Henry, Martin and Kate — celebrate Christmas in the wake of their mother Helen's death. The opening scenes have a familiar texture — squabbling parents (Kate and Josh, Tess and Martin) overstuff their cars and begin the holiday journey to Alice and Henry's in upstate New York.
Alice and Henry, Strong writes, do not have children, "though they tried for years." Martin's wife, Tess, has "built a whole life around the idea that if she stops being productive and responsible, even for a second, she'll die."
Kate, whose husband has squandered much of his trust fund, feels a general unhappiness — "she no longer remembers why she thought she'd like living in Virginia." Alice, the hostess, is also a social worker, and she has another family on her mind: Maddie and Quinn, a local mother and child. The mother, Quinn, struggles with addiction; meanwhile, Alice struggles with longing for parenthood.
Henry, Martin and Josh each make some kind of contribution to the novel's structure — Henry spends hours making art in his barn and fretting about climate change; Josh, to the irritation of his in-laws, builds an igloo in the yard; Martin's job is in jeopardy because he "crossed a boundary" — and, at least in the case of the birds and the igloo, these efforts play a crucial role in the novel's denouement. Still, the women are in the foreground; there are plentiful meditations on motherhood, work, and art.
Art, in particular, receives a thorough and thoughtful treatment. Alice, who has seen success as an artist, finds that success unsatisfying in retrospect, in part because she thinks critics focused more on her race than her work; furthermore, as Henry continues to toil in his barn, Alice "feels embarrass[ed]" by his creative pursuits. Tess, a lawyer, found Alice and Henry "silly sometimes, the sort of entitlement they must have: to think they had a right to live like this."
Questions of entitlement are at the core of this novel: Which, of the three siblings, deserves the house in Florida that Helen leaves behind? Strong's characters ask themselves, if not always each other, what is reasonable. What is fair? The plight of Maddie and Quinn helps to move these questions beyond the narrow realm of lawyers, artists and academics, and of people relying, in part, on inherited wealth.
Strong devotes much of this work to interiority — the adult siblings, their spouses and Maddie and Quinn each grapple with how to get through the holiday. Tension and immediacy stem from Maddie's temporary disappearance, but the overarching concerns of the novel are expectation, disappointment and grief.
When Alice and her mother fall into an "old fight," Strong summarizes it with beauty and restraint: the fight is "shorthand for all the ways that neither woman would have chosen what the other has, for all the ways that neither of them is what the other might have wished she were." Such wishes are flung in every direction at this family gathering, and Strong captures them well in her understated prose.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, One Story, Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Narrative, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She is a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
By: Lynn Steger Strong.
Publisher: Mariner, 228 pages, $27.99.