I've enjoyed Antonya Nelson's short stories in the New Yorker for a number of years but I'd never read any of her novels. Sometimes a great short story writer disappoints me as a novelist (Alice Munro and Eudora Welty come to mind), so I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up Living To Tell.
The book covers a year in the life of the Mabie family of Wichita, Kansas and it opens with a powerful scene. Thirty-three year old Winston Mabie is returning home after five years in prison for manslaughter, the result of a drunk driving accident in which he killed his grandmother. He returns to a large rambling house where his parents and two adult sisters live. His older sister Emily is a recently divorced mother of two young children, and younger sister Mona is an underemployed depressive with bad taste in men. The father, a retired history professor, is secretly grieving over the imminent death of his teaching colleague and best friend Betty, and Mrs. Mabie is losing both her vision and her connection to the rest of her family. The plot also includes a crazy uncle, a pregnant teenager, and a kidnapped dog. Can you say dysfunctional?
But Nelson is a witty and insightful writer, and although her characters may sound less than likable, she is fond of them all and gives each some space to reveal their better selves. There were moments when I felt that I was reading a set piece which had been dropped into novel (kind of like an embedded short story?), but she presents a funny, unsentimental but heartfelt view of an American family.