Tumultuous Family Stories, Two Ways

  • September 9, 2023

Dear readers,

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but there is one dessert I would walk into traffic for. You might know it under an outrageously continental name, fruit givré, but that’s a baroque way to say “a frozen dessert served in the fruit it’s made of.” Really, it doesn’t have to be fancy. It could be peak season Charentais melon from the south of France, gently coaxed into sorbet; it could also be sherbet from the dairy counter-cum-gas station dropped into an orange rind you hollowed out that morning, left to freeze next to French bread pizzas.

I grew up loving these, which partially explains my devotion. But as I’ve gotten older I see their real power lies in their simplicity, the unassuming pleasure of an individual essence cranked up to 11. Yes, your dessert may look like a rock-hard citrus in a coupe, but nudge it open and you might find threads of verbena that push you to reconsider what a lemon ought to taste like. Even if you think you know what you’re getting, the application of sugar, water and deep-chill conditions can transform fruit from something recognizable and commonplace into an experience that borders on the surreal. If I worked at Bain, I might tell you these desserts “overdeliver.”

The books I recommend here share that same power, and both make endings their business. I can’t promise unadulterated sweetness in either one — a cloistered family novel and a diary of a marriage’s breakdown — but the espirit du fruit givré is there. These books are what they resemble, of course, but they become much more.

Joumana Khatib

Like nearly everything else about this novel, the title does double duty, like a Murphy bed with a secretary desk on its flip side. At first I read it as if it were a gravestone. Only after I finished the book did I see another meaning: “missed” as a target might be, as if love were a rocket fired from the shoulder.

We meet Ruth, a middle-aged teacher in London, who is praised at school as “a champion of the suffering teen.” She has not had the same success reaching her own daughter, Eleanor, whom she raised alone. Eleanor’s swerve from a loving and sweet adolescent into an abusive teenager registers as a primal shock. By high school, she is in the throes of addiction.

But when Eleanor has a child of her own — the preternaturally self-possessed Lily — it’s an opportunity for Ruth to try motherhood again. Savvy and clear-headed, Lily takes Eleanor’s unreliability on the chin. By age 11 she’s listening to call-in shows prescribing tricks for medical woes (arthritis, gout) and low-stakes domestic hiccups (stain removal). As Ruth thinks, “I sensed she was equipping herself for life.”

Boyt is the author of seven novels and a memoir, and has worked as a grief counselor. “I’m very Freudian in the way I look at things,” she has said. (She comes by this worldview biologically; her father was the British painter Lucian Freud, making Sigmund her great-grandfather.)

It’s gratifying to watch Lily grow older, ballasted by Ruth’s devotion, even as heartbreak and ruin stalk the story. I was not equipped for its last act, which I found nearly unbearable despite a surfeit of compassion to the end.

Read if you like: Cher’s performance in “Mermaids,” generous overdraft policies, freely given second chances
Available from: New York Review Books

This is the latest installment of Garner’s published diaries, which begin in 1978, but don’t feel the need to start with the first. I hardly knew anything about Garner, an Australian writer, when I picked this up, but by Page 2 I was besotted. Her dinner when her husband is out of town? “Two thick slabs of fresh pineapple and five cloves of boiled garlic.”

The husband at hand is the novelist Murray Bail, though Garner refers to him as V in her journals. Each had built a successful literary career when they met, and they began an affair while he was married; at this point, he’s left his previous wife and settled in with Garner. The reader sees it’s an unsteady pairing.

Depending on your personal history with writers, you might find Garner’s descriptions of Bail cathartic or cautionary. She is unsparing about his relentless self-regard. Even before he strikes up an affair with another woman, the relationship is triangulated by the “work” — his work, to which he is loyal above all.

Garner is even less merciful about her own weakness. Why, in her 50s, three marriages in, is she so desperate to feel loved? Where shall she put her mushrooming jealousy? What would it take for her to escape “plain narrative into some wonderful freedom of LYRICAL UTTERANCE”?

This book is not strictly a claustrophobic, marital death watch, of course, and the flashes of pleasure Garner shares come as a relief: Swims in Bondi. Tearing through a gossip rag on the train. The “unique kind of laughter Chekhov provokes.” Even in the moments when she and Bail engage in some collusion, however small — “V and I merrily washed our bedroom windows. Made them shine” — you’re tempted to cheer.

When we talk about women’s anger, it’s often framed as an obliterating force: an undiscerning, slash-and-burn assault. Pick up this diary, and you can practically feel it seethe. But by the end, you’ll see that rage is actually rather generative, and can even deliver you to a place of rapture.

Read if you like: Orna Guralnik and Esther Perel, Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach, Janet Malcolm
Available from: Text Publishing

  • Eavesdrop while Alain Mabanckou’s narrator in “African Psycho” prowls a neighborhood called He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-an-Idiot, and weighs the pros and cons of murder?

  • Revisit Gore Vidal’s assessment of “the new novel” from 1978, whose proclamations read, charmingly, like a literary Farmer’s Almanac? (See: “Unlike the weather, theories of the novel tend to travel from east to west.”)

  • Fete the return of Bookforum, perhaps with Charlotte Shane’s appreciation of the Beach Boys’ genius? (Brian Wilson was right; the Doobie Brothers are unnerving!)

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