September 2006

Melissa Albert

fiction

The Brambles by Eliza Minot

Eliza Minot’s second novel, The Brambles, is a celebration of the banalities of life, and the indomitable nature of normalcy, even over death. The Brambles are a disjointed modern family, consisting of three thirtysomething siblings, their ailing father, and a clutch of six-and-unders. The fairytale title may also allude to the branches and briers that tend to grow over those caught sleeping; the Bramble children are all, to varying degrees, in a state of pause.

While their mother’s sudden death is still a presence in their lives -- as a newspaper clipping, a spirit peeking out through an old friend’s eyes -- their father is now dying of cancer, overrun by weakness and the nonsequiturs of senility. Margaret, the eldest Bramble, has invited him to come live with her -- a tacit, much reflected-on agreement to let him die in her home. An ex-Manhattanite, she lives in a New Jersey suburb, with a brood of kids and handsome husband. Her life is wholly given over to her offspring, three satellites in constant orbit around her. Sometimes, after days of uninterrupted contact, “It was hard to see them at all. They became like your own face when your face drives you crazy.”

Margaret’s thinking is self-conscious and prosaic: she makes lists, whispers automatic prayers, registers her children’s behavior in the language of a weather forecast. She’s lost her identity to the frustrated servitude of motherhood, but longs inexplicably for another child.

Edie, the baby of the family, exists in a poorly lit grind of modern living. She wakes in a dim studio, takes a subterranean train to work, bears the fluorescent buzz of her 9 to 5, and arrives home after dusk. Her depression manifests itself in obsessive calorie counting and bulimia, and her newly lumpish frame. Edie’s mental monologue is waterlogged by lowbrow pop culture references and a dull, colorless unhappiness. In a rare drive through the world beyond Manhattan, she imagines an alternative, sunlit and impossibly simple, to her gray existence: “How would it be to be an Edie selling strawberries? Straw hats and baseball caps. Pickup trucks. Lots of crates to cart around. Tying things up with twine. Steinbeck. Hay bales. Rolling cigarettes. Flapjacks.”

Max, the middle Bramble, has recently quit his job, and spends weekdays hiding out from his gorgeous wife and their adorable son. He’s so ashamed at his failure to provide that he pretends to go to work. The charade is so far gone that it resembles adultery, and seems included in the novel solely for the added tension it creates. Max’s wife, Chloe, is approachable and loving, and his reason for quitting seems honorable and understandable, yet he chooses intrigue over honesty.

Though the three siblings live the distance of a train ride apart, they’ve become estranged, boxed in by their highly disparate routines. Their father’s illness, and his move into Margaret’s home, brings them together, strangers who share a family history. Even in dealing with the impending death of the Bramble patriarch, and death’s aftermath, Minot doesn’t ascend into lofty thoughts of sudden epiphanies. Edie still plans on vomiting up the pizza she eats in the first hours of grieving, and Margaret’s sudden sickness heralds the new life inside her, even as her father’s just passed into ashes.

Not much changes for the three from the novel’s start to finish. Their father’s death, though a catalyst for gathering and reflection, does little to disturb the lives they’ve made. Though a self-reliant lifestyle has become, increasingly, an idealistic dream, the Brambles have surprisingly insular, surprisingly familiar lives. Max refuses to acknowledge any disturbance to his family’s order, and Margaret ventures out of the home sphere only for the good of her kids and to combat blows to normalcy (to the doctor to relieve sickness, to work to combat house-endangering debt). Edie lives on a solitary track, the kind of life that incurs no notice beyond the disinterested awareness of immediate coworkers.

In fact, the Brambles are so sunk into their lives that recollections of earlier times seem entirely removed from the people they’ve become. Though we’re given perfunctory details of the characters’ histories, the past carries as little weight as the fleeting car rides and café visits of the present. Aside from a jarringly sudden, tossed-off subplot involving the Bramble children’s origin (the smattering of preceding clues are too thin to carry it), Minot never tries to impress with great, telling memories, or epic events. Even death is quiet. The characters develop through tics and habits, and through a catalogue of foibles and secrets: eBay addiction and middle-class discontent (Margaret), bulimia and loneliness (Edie), bourgeois idealism and disgrace (Stephen).

It follows that the beauty of the novel is in the small things. The dignified, tender exchanges between a dying grandfather and his surprisingly respectful grandkids. The honest disjointedness of conversation, remarkably true to life. The humorous inflections of children’s speech: deddie for daddy, mon for man; and the glitter that appears without explanation in a three-year-old’s hair.

The book doesn’t answer any big questions, nor does it try to. It tells a small story, without overreaching. In the end the Brambles continue on in the same way that they were introduced, through the unglamorous routines and transient pleasures of living.

The Brambles by Eliza Minot
Knopf
ISBN 1400042690
243 pages