Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Strangers at the Feast, by Jennifer Vanderbes

It is Thanksgiving, and the Olson family--one of those lovely-on-the-surface-but-deeply-dysfunctional suburban families--is getting together for the holiday meal. They are gathering at he house of Ginny, the scholar who has recently adopted a mute seven-year-old girl from India (illegally, we find out). Ginny's brother Doug, real estate mogul (failed, we find out), is horrified by the state of repair in Ginny's newly purchased home and dashes around pointing out potentially fatal flaws to her while his wife Denise and their three children mope. Even worse than the home's state of repair is the fact that Ginny doesn't have a television--unable to watch the game, what will they do?

Enter the patriarch and matriarch, who arrive in separate cars, emblematic of the state of their 39-year marriage. Eleanor is a housewife who seems to float on the edge of reality. Gavin is a reserved if not depressed insurance agent and Vietnam vet. While waiting for dinner, Gavin discovers a journal article Ginny wrote on the "Emasculation of the American Warrior" and pinches the journal for later reading.

While they wait for the dinner to cook, Kijo and Spider, African American teenagers, are in a van headed for Doug and Denise's McMansion. Armed with duffels full of spray paint, they aim to have a bit of vengeance--Doug forced Kijo and his grandmother out of their family home to make way for an office tower. When it turns out that Ginny's stove isn't working and the family loads all the food into cars to head for her brother's home, it's obvious confrontation lies ahead.

Author Vanderbes loads us up with additional backstory as we wait for the confrontation--the ill-fated opportunity Eleanor had to write an article about her life choices for Good Housekeeping, Gavin's teenage lover in Vietnam, the start of Doug's financial problems when the tech bubble of the 1990s burst, Denise's near affair with a Middle Eastern teacher who disappeared around the time of 9/11, the heroism of Kijo's grandmother as she fought to save her home. When the confrontation does occur, the chaos that ensues is shocking without being surprising.

Vanderbes makes her points--the damage done to economically struggling people by unthinking, greedy developers and white America's sense of entitlement, the scars that spiritual and emotional isolation leave on people no matter what their status--and she does it competently (although the prologue that lets us know something bad will happen really isn't necessary). But the book left me unmoved, perhaps because the characters, particularly Kijo and Spider, are more the author's tools than true inhabitants of their own stories.

Favorite passage:
Long ago he'd made a choice not to pity himself; a man owned his choices, his mistakes. And over time, a mistake of such magnitude hardened like a growth; misshapen flesh on his body that, in the depths of night, roused from sleep, Gavin probed with his fingertips: that is me. Over thirty-six years, his anger had amassed, like thickened issue, around the moment he stepped onto the army-transport plane for Vietnam. That wrong turn--it was him. His life was defined by that choice, how could he say he would have chosen differently? We were our mistakes; we breathed them daily. In summer, they seeped from our skin.

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