Siblings Portia, Anna and Emery return to their California home after their mother — the irrepressable, ethereal and intense Louise — suffers a heart attack. As the Stein family comes to terms with her mortality, each of Buzzy and Louise’s children sift through memories of their tumultuous childhoods at the hands of their parents, a free-wheeling couple with little regard for their children. It’s only by cataloguing the past that they are once again invited into each other’s lives, and each of their demons holds less purchase as they begin to reconcile who they were with where they are now.
Jessica Anya Blau’s Drinking Closer To Home, while fast-paced and shocking, is a difficult novel to digest. We’re presented with a group of very disturbed people, but I couldn’t put the book down; I had to know how this family became so eternally messed up. And how they all managed to emerge from that — though not unscathed.
Blau’s focus on family dynamics, marriage and infidelity were what carried the book for me. For having spent more than 300 pages with these people, I never felt like I got a good sense of any character — but maybe that was the point. Of everyone here, Anna probably enraged me the most. Wanton, disagreeable, surly and destructive, the eldest daughter treated everyone in the family in a cavalier way that made me want to slap her. But if I slapped her, I’d have to hit Louise, too.
Because really, who sucked more than Louise? She’s a “mother,” but we can use the term loosely. She’s selfish. Uncouth. More concerned with creating “art” in the 1960s than parenting her children, all of whom must become self-reliant at a young age. When she “quits” mothering, Portia must carry the slack for her disturbed older sister and confused younger brother. Louise would rather get high and read magazines than care for her kids, and her husband — a lawyer — encourages this. Or, if nothing else, does nothing to stop it. And finances it.
It was enraging.
The “twisted family” trope is nothing new. How many times have we read about screwed-up people who screw up their children? A thousand. And yet, Blau’s novel managed to keep and hold my attention from the first page to the last, probably because of the shocking sexual antics, insane life choices and complicated dynamics happening within its pages. Blurbers comment on the author’s wit and, yes, parts are sort of funny, but it’s mostly in a “Did they really say that?” way. In a “No grandfather could call his granddaughter that” way. A “That’s so disturbing that surely it’s meant to be comical” way.
And that’s not really how I like my books.
That’s not to say that Drinking Closer To Home isn’t a worthwhile read. It’s certainly well-written and engrossing, and if you enjoy examining the bonds of siblings and joining a family on a decades-long jaunt through time? Well, Blau’s novel would certainly entertain and bother you for a few days. In many ways, the dynamics at play reminded me of Robin Antalek’s The Summer We Fell Apart, a novel I absolutely loved. And, to my surprise, Antalek actually blurbed the book herself! She writes:
Drinking Closer To Home is as raw and heartbreaking as it is tender . . . an honest, haunting story with a keen insight into the human psyche.
Emphasis on the “haunting.”
And I have yet to figure out if that’s a good thing.
3.5 out of 5!