Friday, May 23, 2008

Family Matters

When Australian writer Christina Stead's novel The Man Who Loved Children was first published in 1940 it sold poorly and was soon out of print. Yet when Time published its critics list of 100 Best Novels (1923 to Present) in 2005, Stead's book made the list. What changed? The book gained popularity in literary circles and was reissued in 1965. The book hadn't changed but the world had. The concept of a dysfunctional family was certainly more acknowledged. And believe me, the Pollits are a dysfunctional family.

When we first see the family in 1936 in their large rundown house in Georgetown Sam and Henny's marriage is already in shambles. Sam is a mid-level bureaucrat at the Department of Interior and he is the children-loving man of the title. He regards himself as a sort of Super Dad, who directs his six children in household projects, lectures them on his theories of society, and chatters to them in his unique (and incredibly annoying) babytalk language. But the title is ironic. Sam is himself a narcissistic child and wants his children to serve only as his adoring fan club. Henny comes from a wealthy Baltimore family and has married beneath her. She is disappointed, angry and bitter, and though she is sometimes capable of being maternal, she is often cold and dismissive. The parents no longer communicate directly with each other, although they fight constantly and viciously. The oldest child Louisa, Sam's teenage daughter by a first wife who died young, receives more than her fair share of verbal abuse from both. But her clear-eyed view of the family drama was my anchor as I waded through this almost operatic story of a family's disintegration– all 527 pages.

So why read it? It's not for the fainthearted and you probably need to like train wrecks. But Stead is an amazing writer. Her prose reads like a modern novel even though it's over 60 years old. She has vivid descriptions of the chaotic ramshackle houses and gardens that are almost photographic in their details. It's no surprise that one of the cover blurbs is from Jonathan Franzen, author of his own dysfunctional family saga The Corrections (“This crazy, gorgeous family novel is one of the great literary achievements of the twentieth century”). Like Franzen's, Stead's novel is somewhat autobiographical, with Louie (Louisa), the aspiring artist, representing the author. That may explain how she is able to give such an accurate portrayal of the view of the family dynamic through the eyes of each of the six children caught in its maelstrom. This is the only kind of family they know and they are each molded by it in a different way. The Pollits are irritating, terrifying and unforgettable.

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