Audrey Martin, her husband Andrew Murray, and teenage daughter Emily have recently moved to a long-empty farmhouse around which a suburban development has grown. The Martin-Murrays have fled to this suburban outpost of Hartford, CT, from their previous life in a more upscale suburb of New York in an effort to assuage the grief of losing their son in a car accident. But the move is ultimately disastrous for the family.
We learn the basic outline of the family's move in a prologue. The first section of the book then focuses on the Mandelbaums, neighbors of the Martin-Murrays. Leonard is a widower in his 80s; his son 40-something Benjamin moves in when his wife throws him out. Leonard is set up with a widow; doing push-ups to see if he is fit enough to qualify for a Viagra prescription, Leonard has a stroke. With an empty house available for shenanigans, Benjamin quickly starts an affair with Audrey, with whom he went to high school. Meanwhile, a series of break-ins plagues the neighborhood. When Emily shows up at Benjamin's house with evidence that she might be involved in the break-ins and acting completely out of control, the book's tone switches (or at least I began to feel apprehension about what was coming).
The narrative then switches to the Martin-Murrays, covering the same time period from the perspectives of the different family members. It becomes clear fairly quickly that Audrey's affair with Benjamin is the least of the family's problems. At his new job in the Hartford office of his law firm, Andrew begins making a series of bad decisions. Paralleling his downward spiral is that of Emily, who (she is a teenager after all) is furious about having to move before her senior year in high school. She, too, makes increasingly terrible decisions, leading to a family crisis.
While the hidden dysfunction in neat suburban communities is hardly a new idea (I have lived in the suburbs for 38 years!), Housebreaking (the title clearly has layers of meaning) held my attention. I really enjoyed Leonard's story, which brought the process of recovering from a stroke to life. When the focus shifted to Andrew and Emily, the book became almost painful (some of the actions/thoughts of male characters, teenage, and adult, made me cringe), yet I wanted to know how they might work their way through their problems. The ending was odd, combining a long-range "wrapped up neatly" conclusion for Emily, a couple of short-range "wrapped up less neatly" scenes for Audrey, Benjamin, and Leonard, and one offhand phrase about Andrew's future.
As he pushed the shopping card down the narrow aisles [of Whole Foods] he noted two distinct types: the wild-haired bohemians who worked there and the middle-aged yuppies who shopped there. Organic food was healthy, yes? So how to explain the unsightly appearance of the patrons--their sallow complexions, their thin and frizzled hair, their shuffling gaits. Many looked like recent victims of accident or disease, limping and wheezing, loading their carts with every sort of vitamin known to the natural world. In Benjamin's opinion they would do better getting a steak and some frozen peas at the Stop & Shop down the street.