NPR's Best Books of 2016. With over three hundred books, this list is going to keep me busy for quite a while. There are just too many good books out there for me to keep up with. However, I was initially a little unsure of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (2016) by Ramona Ausubel.
The blurb from amazon states:
Labor Day, 1976, Martha's Vineyard. Summering at the family beach house along this moneyed coast of New England, Fern and Edgar—married with three children—are happily preparing for a family birthday celebration when they learn that the unimaginable has occurred: There is no more money. More specifically, there's no more money in the estate of Fern's recently deceased parents, which, as the sole source of Fern and Edgar's income, had allowed them to live this beautiful, comfortable life despite their professed anti-money ideals. Quickly, the once-charmed family unravels. In distress and confusion, Fern and Edgar are each tempted away on separate adventures: she on a road trip with a stranger, he on an ill-advised sailing voyage with another woman. The three children are left for days with no guardian whatsoever, in an improvised Neverland helmed by the tender, witty, and resourceful Cricket, age nine.
Many of the negative reviews of this book complain that the characters are annoying and unlikable, which isn't too surprising given the blurb above. Rich, entitled, and hypocritical people who fall apart at the first whisper of difficulty in their lives are not particularly sympathetic characters. But I downloaded it anyway and began to read. Very early on, I hit a point where I was so impressed by Ausubel's writing that I felt safe. I had no idea where she was going with her story, but I trusted that she could keep it interesting and emotionally engaging. And she did. It's difficult to write characters who make bad, selfish decisions and still make them understandable. I think Ausubel accomplished this.
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty jumps around between time periods and perspectives. The story is centered around the relationship of Edgar and Fern and their three children. We learn of Edgar's and Fern's childhoods as well as the, sometimes surprising, history of the other main characters. I would characterize this book as meandering, exploring how family and experiences shape us. Although there is some urgency brought to the plot with the children at home alone, and wondering about how things could possibly work out, it is more about the journey and an investigation of the characters' lives.
Ausubel has a remarkable ability to keep the big picture in mind while giving us minute details of her characters' motivations. Edgar is fascinating and infuriating. Born feeling guilty for his privilege and wealth, he constantly rants about the coal workers dying for his life of ease. Yet he's oblivious of the many other privileges that are afforded to him, including his wife's sacrifice and work to keep their family going.
"Maybe the girl would care about something along the way--art or history--but it would be pressed out of her slowly until she was nothing but a woman, nothing but a mother." (31)
"Edgar let it be. He did not want to tell his wife that he thought she could amount to more, though he did, because he loved her and because she was smart and because he was blind to so much of the work she did in their home, the invisible structure she built to support five lives." (222)
Edgar is also oblivious to the fact that his wife's money, that he lives off of, was grown on the back of slaves. In addition, his daughter is learning a caricatured version of Native Americans in school, believing that they are some mythical, western story and oblivious to the fact that she is living right where they used to live. What makes Edgar so frustrating, though, is that he is idealistic, but not strong enough to follow through on his convictions. I imagine many of us are like this to some degree, but Edgar's life puts a spotlight on his hypocrisy. As easy as Edgar is to dislike, he still suffers. His life would be so much easier if he could imagine that he had earned such a life (as many people do) and just enjoy it.
I really liked this book. It is interesting, well-written, and thought-provoking. There is so much more to it than I was able to describe in this review. I was, perhaps, disappointed that the ending came so quickly and cleanly. Ausubel spent the majority of the book unraveling people's thoughts and lives. It all came back together so swiftly in the end that it was almost anticlimactic. However, like the story, this book is more about the journey than the ending, and I'm very glad I read it. NPR's best books of 2016 hasn't let me down yet. If only I had more time.