The Ghost at the Table
by Suzanne Berne
Algonquin Books, 292 pp.
The holidays: that time of year when the children return, like migrant birds, to warmly lit homes, lavish meals, gift-giving. For some families, it is the only gathering of the year, an annual rite of heritage and replenishment.
Or do your relatives drive you crazy? Does the stress of making the big dinner always ruin the feast itself? Do buried grudges and anxieties always manage to surface through the alcohol? If by the end of December (or even this weekend) you're ready to sprint as far from your kin as you can, then you'll probably feel sisterly toward Cynthia, the narrator of Suzanne Berne's new novel of Thanksgiving grievances, The Ghost at the Table.
Against the warning of her best friend in San Francisco that "families are toxic," Cynthia flies to Concord, Mass., her sister Frances' home. "On one condition," Cynthia tells Frances. "That we don't get into a lot of old stuff."
Enter old stuff. But first, what to do about their elderly father, from whom they're nearly estranged? He's had a stroke, and his much younger second wife—a former mistress he later married, just after Cynthia and Frances' mother died decades earlier—has decided to divorce him and eject him from their house on Cape Cod. After a misunderstanding with a nursing home, the sisters return to Frances' lovingly restored colonial farmhouse (she's a collector of old stuff) on the day before Thanksgiving, as caretakers of a half-paralyzed, semi-coherent father. And among these three lurks, of course, the nasty old stuff, into which they promptly plunge.
Berne's prose is brisk, clear and direct, and she works her complex plot deftly. In Cynthia she has a confident, probing narrator who is capable of apt description and insight (e.g. "a sky the color of an old pie tin") but doesn't shy away from using sentence fragments in order to move along action and exposition.
No surprise that Berne's protagonist is a good storyteller, because Cynthia's day job—and what gives the novel its literary weight—is to write historical fiction for teenage girls. She cranks out "cheerfully earnest feminist stories" about famous writers like Emily Dickinson and Helen Keller, through the eyes of "unheralded sisters," smoothing over family oddments and jealousies by ignoring some details (like Helen Keller trying to kill her infant younger sister) and inventing others in order to "illustrate the message that the most important things in life are human relationships."
As the novel opens, Cynthia is researching a book about Mark Twain, and she convinces herself to come back east on the pretext of visiting the old Twain home in Hartford, Conn. There are many parallels between Twain's family and Cynthia's—so many, in fact, that the novel sometimes feels overly schematic. It is laden with rhymed plots and characters, as befits a tale of family generations—a multiplicity of aggrieved sisters, irascible fathers, sick mothers—but sometimes these rhymes are too legion to be worked out in a 292-page novel. Still, the conflict among Cynthia and her relatives is elevated from a mere family squabble by the presence of literary ghosts around their Thanksgiving table. Seated at which Cynthia, an increasingly (and intriguingly) unreliable narrator, goes on the sauce and then off the rails of her resentment, conducting her family into perilous terrain.
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Thus the famous first sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. For much of The Ghost at the Table, Berne seems to challenge Tolstoy's thesis: If even this affluent, attentive, compassionate clan is so distraught, can any family really be called happy? Yet as Cynthia reflects on the old damage her parents did, she finds something that isn't quite allegiance but at least illuminates how that allegiance is thwarted:
They, like most people, had done their best. You love whom you love, you fail whom you fail, and almost always we fail the ones we meant to love.... We get sick or distracted or frightened and don't listen.... Time passes, we lose track of our mistakes, neglect to make amends. And then, no matter how much we might like to try again, we're done.
Perhaps among those scraps of bruised faith and gaunt appreciation lies the reason we put aside our lives and come home, every year, for the holidays.