It’s December 22 in this defining new novel when siblings Martin, Henry, and Kate gather with their spouses and children at Henry and Alice’s house. Normally they’d be celebrating Christmas at their mother’s house in Florida, but Helen died eight months ago. She didn’t leave a will. Over the next three days, in upstate New York, this restless group will be deciding what to do with Helen’s house while pretending to get along. Helen was the peacemaker, a commanding presence of stability. Without her, they’re unsure how to proceed as a united family.
These are flawed characters, professionals and artists overly preoccupied with their jobs and their clashing parenting methods. They’re good people realistically portrayed with riveting force and snappish clarity.
Martin wishes he could confide in his brother Henry about his tenuous job situation. His wife Tess disappears into her work email on her laptop. She pretends to like her sister-in-law Kate who pretends to like her back. Henry escapes to the barn at night to work on his art installation, grateful for the quiet. His wife Alice obsessively watches for texts from Maddie, even though it’s forbidden to communicate directly with the children of her clients – Alice is a social worker. She grieves that her body miscarries every time she gets pregnant. Everyone except Alice thinks Kate’s husband Josh is useless. Josh poorly invested their finances – he and Kate, who’s a stay-at-home-mom with their three kids, could soon be broke. Josh contentedly is building an igloo in the backyard with instructions he found on YouTube.
We’re thrown into their disparate interactions without much sorting. It’s disorienting, at first. But eventually the personalities and back stories become familiar, build, and connect. The strength of the story – its purpose — advances with Steger Strong’s spot-on grasp of how her characters tick, and why. She gets them – authentically — without forced melodrama or fictional devices, right down to their petty resentments.
As for Helen’s house, Tess wants to sell it. Martin follows whatever Tess wants. Kate and Josh want to live in it with their three kids. Climate-conscious Henry wants to give it to the state because it backs up to a federal preserve. Alice doesn’t care. Meanwhile, they play cards, go shopping, take the kids sledding, cook, and make gingerbread houses.
Henry’s artwork in the barn hints at what this family could be and should be. He’s striving to imitate the way a flock of birds swoops down and up and then soars across the sky in a fluid pattern. Henry sees the beauty of it, what’s described as “the inexplicable impossibility of the birds’ togetherness.”
The dramatic turn, a near catastrophe, arrives on Christmas Eve. You can see it coming. The way everything is slumping toward a cave-in, like the walls of the gingerbread houses the kids made. And yet, out of the catastrophe, hope arrives with the chance of a new perspective. It’s a precious gift, if only they can see it. What Helen knew. What Henry understands. What Steger Strong punches home.
A version of this review aired on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM, broadcasting throughout central Ohio.