- Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
- Publication Date:
- 24 May 2012
- Modern & Contemporary
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‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’In the dysfunctional Forrest family, the universal is in the particular. There are many mundane-but-fascinating scenes of day to day (middle-class) life that are described so exactly and minutely that resonated with my own experience that at times it seemed like reading about my own life. It was because of this sensory detail the characters felt like real people and were totally absorbing.Daniel is the charming, elusive, Heathcliff-type figure that Dorothy continually hankers after. Is he the under-tow that keeps dragging her under, or does that longing keep her afloat when life becomes overwhelming? Of one of the many wonderful metaphors throughout the book, this one encapsulates their relationship: ‘A vine had grown over the kitchen window and been cut back, leaving a tattoo of broken black swirls. Dorothy picked at the insistent tendril that crawled under the windowpane, its bright greenness probing the room, pale green shoots emerging like arrowheads, or the tops of the spades suit in a deck of playing cards.’ A minor quibble: The book evokes a nostalgic growing up in NZ atmosphere that I was immersed in so completely, that when references such as silver foil milk bottle tops, the new anti-nuclear policy and EpiPens, and the Red Squad came up, I needed to readjust my time-frame slightly. I almost wanted dates with the chapter headings, as the references that helped me to pinpoint dates were vague and at times contradictory – Dorothy is 25 in the mid 1980s, on page 289 she is almost 65, but then the later the Rest Home scenes with current news items (duct tape, topless women on bikes etc) disorientated me. Perhaps they were they her confused memories of another time? It was a bit disconcerting, my reaction was no, no, you can’t do that to her yet!The episodic style is similar to that of ‘The Stranger’s Child’ and I loved the way the writing got inside the heads of the female characters: ‘She would clear out the cupboards and vacuum in the corners and wipe down all the boxes. She would find enough fresh food to make something hearty for dinner, and light the fire and pick flowers for the table and in the morning would sand down the windowsills and paint them and clean the windows and re-roof the house and mow the lawns and burn this house down and build a better one and bring her father back from the dead.’As the song says Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. A great read that I just devoured.
This is the complex story of the dysfunctional Forrest family. Frank is the head of the family, an aspiring actor he moves his family from the States to New Zealand to progress his career, only to find that he does not succeed and the family are then required to live on his trust fund. Sadly the trust fund is not enough to return his family to the States. The novel follows the storyline of Dot, from childhood through into her adult years to finally the elderly stages of life, where she suffers from dementia.I was frustrated by the characters, and every time I pondered whether I should stop reading because I was so frustrated something compelled me to continue reading. This is a modern, moody family saga.
Opening with Frank Forrest filming a family movie of his children, Dorothy, Evelyn, Michael, Ruthie and their friend Daniel, the interrupted script, unintended images, and the ultimate abandonment of the film captures the feel of the novel as a whole and sets up this slice of life series of episodic style shorts from the life of the dysfunctional Forrest family. The Forrests move to New Zealand chasing father Frank's dream of acting but he can no more break into theater in Auckland than he could in New York and the family must fall back on his rapidly disappearing trust fund to live. Thus starts this dreamy novel that follows second Forrest daughter Dorothy's life from childhood through her dementia-riddled old age.The vignette-like chapters each freeze a moment in time as the story progresses and the Forrests age. Parents Frank and Lee are remote and consumed by their own self-centered whims. They haul their children around without reference to the damage they might do them and they never actually see what is going on in the lives of the kids. Although each of the family members is granted time on the page, Dorothy is the focus of the majority of the novel and so the reader spends the most time reading about her ultimately ordinary life and the never realized dreams she still sometimes entertains, including her lifelong love of family friend Daniel.The writing is kaleidoscopic, filled with shimmeringly beautiful descriptions and imagery but the feel is still somehow still distant and detached. The feel is almost like a collection of photographs overlaid with a wash, like Instagram snaps. From chapter to chapter there are gaps in time that are left to the reader to fill in. Some of the gaps are quite large and some smaller, an uneven teasing thread. The characters, specifically Dorothy and Eve, can never quite overcome their family and their upbringing, remaining emotionally shattered. They cannot connect, drifting untethered in their own lives. And while the effect seems intentional it is still disorienting for the reader who also cannot quite connect with this admittedly gorgeously written but aloof and oft times dispassionate story.
I bought this book with much anticipation but found that halfway through the book I was just bored with the characters. However, I will try and finish.
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