My parents got divorced when I was 9. I was an only child but my father’s second wife had kids from a previous marriage. After their marriage, my father moved to the other side of the country. For me, that was a big culture shock and I was endlessly fascinated with the mechanics of sibling interactions. I had never had to “call” a seat for a car ride before. It was like I had landed on the moon for a month every summer. This was in the late ’70s through the early 80’s when there was no word for “free range” kids because we were all pretty much free range. This book brought a lot of that back for me. Although, my experience wasn’t quite as dramatic.
The book follows the lives of two families merged by divorce, the Keatings and the Cousins’, from the 1960’s to present day. Beverly Keating moves from California to Virginia with her second husband, Bert, taking her two daughters across the country to begin a new life with their step father. Teresa Cousins, Bert’s ex-wife, stays in California to raise their 4 children. The Cousins children are sent to Virginia every summer to stay with their father and for most of that summer, all six kids are under the same roof.
The core of the story is the relationship between these six children who are often left alone in the Virginia heat to make what they will of the summer months. It’s about the bonds that they make and break and the futures that they carve out for themselves after their lives are turned upside down by divorce. There is a “mystery” element to the book as well. A family tragedy is slowly revealed as the story progresses, but the dissolution of the marriages and the relationships that form in its wake are really the push behind the narrative.
The children are far more compelling than the parents here, although the latter become a little more fully realized towards the end of the book. Thematically there are a lot of interesting things going on: the desire to share family history before it’s lost, decisions made in childhood that carry adult weight, parents’ serving their needs above their children’s and the point at which you begin to see your parents through an adult lens. The characters are each unique but believable in their own quirkiness. This is one of those books that played out as a movie in my head because of Patchett’s ability to capture a time and place. I heard those ice cubes clinking in cocktail glasses and the laughter of unsupervised kids running wild and barefoot in the back yard at dusk. A little suburban Lord of the Flies.