- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

SO HAPPY TOGETHER
By Maryann McFadden
Hyperion, $23.99, 400 pages
REVIEWED BY CLAIRE HOPLEY

Poor Claire! She’s a nice, dutiful history teacher who brought up her daughter, Amy, alone, only to have her disappear to parts unknown right out of high school. Now taking care of her aging parents, Claire has never had her chance to pursue her interest in photography. You have to feel sorry for her. But at the beginning of Maryann McFadden’s “So Happy Together,” things are looking up.

Claire’s fiance, Rick, a golf-playing realtor, is about to whisk her off to a new home in Arizona. Before that, though, she has been accepted to a prestigious photography course on Cape Cod. Afterward, she’ll return to her New Jersey home and plan her wedding. She feels a bit uneasy about leaving her parents, but as everyone tells her, at 45, she is right to want to spread her wings.

Then, with Rick off on a golfing trip and Claire’s case packed ready for Cape Cod, 24-year-old Amy returns looking overweight and unwell. A few hours later, she collapses on the floor, already several hours into childbirth. So no Cape Cod for Claire. Her parents aren’t doing well either. Her mother, Fanny, has an injured hip, and her father has Parkinson’s, and his problems are worsening. Claire can’t get much help from Rick with any of this. He has never wanted children so won’t relish Amy’s return. And Claire’s brother is clearly not going to take hands-on responsibility for their parents. What is she to do?

Readers will quickly spot that Claire faces real and common problems. She is part of that sandwich generation that has to cope simultaneously with needy grown-up children, aging parents and grandchildren. One potential satisfaction of the novel is that Claire’s efforts to take care of her family may yield some tips or insights to readers who face comparable problems. In this sense, “So Happy Together” belongs to a subset of the Novel of Ideas. While it doesn’t broach new intellectual or political ground, it does rehearse contemporary social ideas, especially about the teetering balance between personal goals and family duties in an era when families are small and often scattered.

Social novels have always soothed readers with the knowledge that problems are shared, sometimes lighting the way forward by scouting the pitfalls and shortcuts ahead. The best of these novels do more: They engage the reader with the nature or source of the difficulty and with the personalities of the characters. They demand not just sympathy with a problem but empathy with those confronting it.

Maryann McFadden enlists her readers on Claire’s side by presenting her as self-sacrificing, but she has few other qualities, so responses to her are simple: sentimental rather than deeply felt. Other characters are just as simple. Amy seems so downright irresponsible that her makeover is scarcely credible. Why did she suffer and cause so many problems during her teenage years? Ms. McFadden’s answer is that she had no dad to come to school events. It’s not good enough.

Rick can be summed up in two words: selfish golfer.

Why did Claire fall for Rick? Because he’s good looking and offers a different life? A bit better of an explanation, but still pretty weak if we are to believe that Claire is both smart and sensitive. Ms. McFadden does a better job characterizing Claire’s mother, Fanny. In her late 70s, she looks back with disappointment because she feels her husband, Joe, never really loved her.

There are real complexities here involving the older generation’s attitude to work and family and unresolved issues from Joe’s days in the service. When Claire eventually gets to Cape Cod, Fanny and Joe get a chance to move forward emotionally. Though Joe’s encounter with a former girlfriend is unconvincing, Fanny’s ruminations as she worries about her family and reflects on her life make her the most attractive character in this novel. The reason she attracts is because she is not smooth or as neatly finished as Claire; she is a rounded, even craggy, character whose engagement with her own family’s history offers the reader something to grab on to.

Significantly, at several points, Fanny’s behavior moves the story along, and in the course of the novel, she changes and grows. Amy also changes as she learns to take care of her baby, but she is much hazier, penciled in rather than portrayed in full color. In contrast, Claire is caught in the tangle of the story, and while her circumstances change as she makes it to Cape Cod, at the end of the novel she is still the same Claire.

She has better prospects as a photographer and in her relationships, but this Lucky Claire is only the obverse of Poor Claire. She is never more than a product of her author’s story-telling, never a fully realized fictional character convincingly inhabiting a world of her own.

The shortcomings of “So Happy Together” highlight the differences between the popular novel and the literary novel. Maryann McFadden’s crisp style and steady hand on the tiller of the plot will make her book appealing to those who want unchallenging vacation reading. But her characters are largely chess pieces that she moves at whim rather than real fictional creatures who shape the tale and move the plot.

Moreover, while the dilemmas she describes are the stuff of everyday life, Ms. McFadden takes them as given. She does little to explore them or the era that gave them birth. Claire muddles her way through as best she can and things go pretty well. Good for her! But that’s an individual solution that lacks the depth or resonance of the best novels about society — the ones that really teach us and move us.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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