- - Thursday, November 23, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

SEVEN DAYS OF US

By Francesca Hornak

Berkley Hardcover, $26, 368 pages

Christmas is coming. Time for families to get to get together, to reconnect and reminisce, to eat the scrumptious things they eat at Christmas — and then to go their separate ways.

But what if Christmas with the family meant seven days staying strictly in the same house, its doors closed to outsiders? Could this be too much of a good thing? Maybe even a downright bad thing?

In “Seven Days of Us” the Birch family spend Christmas holed up in their country house in Norfolk. It’s Emma’s childhood home and she loves it. Her husband Andrew is less enthusiastic. He’s used to going there for Christmas because she insists, but not for seven days, and not without the relief of other company and visits to shops and pubs and friends.

But 2016 is different because eldest daughter Olivia, a doctor just returned from working with victims of a lethal epidemic in Africa, has to go into quarantine. She’s spending Christmas with the family, which is unusual for her, so they have to be quarantined with her. She and her father Andrew are not close, nor are she and her flibbertigibbet sister Phoebe.

Nothing extraordinary in that, and since Emma is thrilled to have Olivia home, and Phoebe is happily absorbed in planning her wedding, things ought to be OK. They might even be happily festive.

But Andrew has a secret. A short while ago he learned that he had fathered a son with to a woman with whom he had had a brief fling when he was working in Lebanon. She had given up the baby for adoption. Now, that child Jesse, raised in Iowa but grown up and living in Los Angeles, has been in touch. He wants to meet Andrew and his half-sisters.

Andrew wants no such thing. He and Emma were not married when Jesse was conceived, but they were already a couple, and he fears she won’t be best pleased to learn that he has a son older than Olivia. So Andrew doesn’t reply to Jesse. Ever hopeful, Jesse sends follow-up emails, then decides to spend Christmas in England, and arrange a meeting while he is there.

Poor Jesse. He spends Christmas alone in a miserable hotel.

Andrew also spends a glum Christmas sitting in the smoking room, trying to think how to hide Jesse’s existence. Olivia, too, has a rough time. She’s thinking of the man she loves, an Irish doctor she met in Africa. As ever, Phoebe does her own thing, and is happy enough when her fianc gatecrashes and has to remain in quarantine with her.

Countless fictional mysteries and entanglements have been unraveled in English country houses, so “Seven Days of Us” arouses comfortable memories of earlier novels in which the action twists and tangles before eventually straightening out.

Francesca Hornak uses the country-house setting well, showing its charms, but also letting us see that it is outdated and a bit suffocating. In this environment her plot fizzes with teasing possibilities ranging from complete holiday disaster to farcical fun as relationships settle in new forms.

She keeps everything in play by using short chapters, each told by a different character. Readers see their varying points of view, and also what they think of the rest of the family, and gradually this clarifies the reasons for their issues and estrangements.

Perhaps surprisingly, this stratagem also keeps the reader at a certain arm’s length. You can see what may happen but it’s rather like watching a play where you witness everything on stage, but from a distance. You ponder everyone’s situation, rather than slithering empathetically into it.

Andrew, a former foreign correspondent now working as a restaurant critic, comes out of this poorly. So perhaps does Phoebe, the pet of the family, though she can be fun. Emma fades from view as she lets herself be the materfamilias. Jesse is less than credible.

The thinness of the characterization is mitigated by Ms. Hornak’s excellent ear for dialogue. All the characters have distinctly individual voices. Andrew is snarky. Olivia too solemn for her own good. Phoebe is mistress of the quick quip, while George is a master of cliche.

The author is equally adept at handling the plot, setting if off smartly, whipping it on to maintain the pace, but also keeping a careful rein so that she can guide the novel to a satisfying, not quite predictable, ending.

Magazines and newspapers regularly warn us that Christmas is the most stressful season of the year. The Birch family go through enough stress to last for several Christmases. Reading about them could prompt reflections on family holidays and much more. It will certainly hold attention.

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


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