The beauty of this novel is in the details.
Heller, the author of “Everything You Know” and “What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal,” paints a family portrait so rich and full, it seems at times that the characters are living and breathing on the page.
It’s about the Litvinoff family and how they each deal with life after the patriarch, Joel, a famous lawyer, suffers a stroke that renders him in a vegetative state. After the stroke, the mother, Audrey, a brash, hard talking British woman, must face Joel’s secret. He apparently fathered a child during an affair with a woman.
Audrey, who had imagined herself as the consort of an influential man, is a socialist and disdains religion. Daughter Rosa, on the other hand, is studying Orthodox Judaism. Another daughter, Karla, is overweight and trying to get pregnant even though she’s in an unfulfilling marriage.
There is also Lenny, the boy Audrey took in at 7 years old when his mother was arrested and then sentenced to a life for killing a police officer during a botched bank robbery 27 years earlier. He is now a drug addict trying to kick the habit.
Still, the characters are not wholly unlikeable. They are rude, make mistakes, misread each other and are sometimes cruel.
But isn’t that the human experience?
Once, Heller writes, Audrey’s manner had been a way for a young insecure girl to disguise her shyness, but somewhere along the way it changed.
“It had begun to express authentic resentment: boredom with motherhood, fury at her husband’s philandering, despair at the pettiness of her domestic fate. She hadn’t noticed the change at first. Like an old lady who persists in wearing the Jungle Red lipstick of her glory days, she had gone on for a long time, fondly believing that the stratagems of her youth were just as appealing as they had even been.”
When Karla first meets Khaled, her future lover, who owns the newsstand in the hospital where she works as a social worker, she cries in front of him about being fat.
In one poignant passage, Heller explains Karla’s relationship to food:
“While the matter of her girth was an intense and ongoing saga for her — a daily drama of doughnuts nobly forsworn and later feverishly salvaged from the garbage; of nonfat yogurt lunches canceled out by furtive french-fry snacks; of painfully tiny losses and appallingly sudden gains — for most people, she could see, her weight did not register as any sort of narrative at all.”
In another passage Heller writes about a Jewish learning center where Rosa goes as part of her studies that had been bequeathed to the organization by a pious widow named Rivka Danziger. The details of one of its rooms are so vivid:
“The carpet of the former master bedroom, which now served as a seminar room, still bore four round marks where the posts of Mrs. Danziger’s double bed had once stood.”
After Joel dies, the whole family goes through a transformation, a kind of awakening, where they all seem to get about the business of living and taking chances.