Paula Fox’s 1976 novel examines one family’s intense and contentious relations with each other. While the hurt, anger and divisions have been years in the making, all it takes is one dinner together and its aftermath for the reader to gather the depth of the discord and the underlying reasons for the dysfunction. The Maldonada family, as one might guess from the name, is both Spanish and “given toward evil” — a very poor translation of what I think that name means. Evil is too strong a word though; the family that Fox has created is unique in its history but perhaps more typical than we would like to admit in its dysfunction. Their relationships with money, work, other races and classes, and each other (particularly mother/daughter relationships) could be characterized as self-serving or even heartless. Yet this train wreck of a family is fascinating to watch, and the one outsider who is involved in the evening seems both complicit in their dysfunction and judgmental of it.
The story begins on a rainy spring evening in New York. Laura Maldonada Clapper and her husband Desmond are preparing for a cruise to Africa, and Laura has summoned her daughter (Clara) by her first marriage, her brother Carlos and old friend Peter Rice to join them for dinner. Laura has just found out that her mother Alma has died in the nursing home, but for reasons unknown, she refuses to divulge this information to anyone. We know that Clara dreads having dinner with her mother, that Peter feels a deep affection for and perhaps is even in love with Laura, and that everyone seems worried that Laura might go into one of her rages and cause a spectacle while they are out. The first several chapters of the novel set a distinctly dark and claustrophobic mood. When they meet in the Clappers’ hotel room for drinks, Desmond is well on the way to drunkenness and there’s too much smoke. Clara is walking on eggshells not to antagonize Laura; she feels guilty about not visiting the grandmother who raised her but she is also dreaming of the married man with whom she is having an affair. Carlos, who seems the friendliest and most engaging of the group, is looking forward to meeting a lover later. Peter, a book publisher, provides his own internal observations of the group as well as some history, such as how he met Laura and her first husband, their Bohemian and penniless lifestyle, the drinking, and Laura’s second marriage to a very wealthy man. Both Peter and Carlos in their private reflections see Clara as young and lovely but fearful in her relationship with Laura, which both think is a mistake; they seem to wish that Clara would grow a backbone and stand up to her mother. Overall, we see that each of these people is unhappy and seemingly unable or unwilling to change that.
As the dinner party is breaking up, Laura does indeed provide a public spectacle, running out of the restaurant and into the rain, showing up at the hotel much later. She finally reveals to Desmond that her mother Alma is dead, and she requests that they contact Peter Rice and ask him to inform Carlos and the other Maldonada brother Eugenio. Laura explicitly requests that Clara not be told, meaning that Clara would not attend the funeral planned for the next day. Peter dutifully tracks down Eugenio and Carlos, and the reader learns more interesting details about this family. Eugenio seems less concerned about his mother’s death than his sister’s failure to employ his services for her trip abroad. Eugenio comes across as quite venal, complaining that Alma was to blame for the poverty of the family, which Eugenio resents. After leaving Eugenio, Peter reflects,
…the Maldonada perversity still took him by surprise, forced him to admit the precariousness of custom. These people had not signed any social contract.
After discharging his duties, Peter struggles with whether or not he should honor Laura’s request that he not tell Clara. To Peter, as to most people I should think, it seems a petty and spiteful act. Alma raised Clara after all. We know that Laura did not want any children and immediately handed Clara over to Alma after she was born. We know that Laura hardly ever visited her daughter and even took some of Clara’s money without ever repaying her. It also seems that Laura resents Clara’s youth and beauty. And we know that Clara has been feeling guilty about not visiting her grandmother lately. Peter’s ultimate decision, and Clara’s reaction to it, is a revelation. A story that seemed to be about a selfish mother and sheepish daughter turns out to be much more complicated than that. Fox gives the reader a lot to ponder, and Peter Rice exemplifies what many readers might be feeling when they reach the end.
I found this to be a brilliant novel — well written and provocative, and the edition I have includes a very informative introduction by Andrea Barrett as well as discussion questions at the end. It’s a short novel but could lead to rich discussion.