Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review: The Red House by Mark Haddon

The loss of a parent is bad enough but that same life-altering event is the driving force behind a family reunion set in the Welsh countryside in the picturesque town of Hay-on-Wye. Richard, a wealthy doctor, invites his sister Angela and her family to his vacation home. Angela and Richard have just buried their last parent, their mother, and emotions remain raw. For the past few years, it has been Angela who has been taking care of the dying mother even if Richard foots the bills for a nursing home. Even without these specific animosities, Richard and Angela don’t exactly share a harmonious sibling relationship. The families they have made with spouses and kids, therefore, remain strangers to each other.

As they get together for a week, both sets of families--Richard’s and Angela’s--are hoping to get to know each other a little better. Richard has a fairly new marriage to Louisa and is still unsure as to how to parent his teen stepdaughter, Melissa. All is not roses in Richard’s professional life either. He has a potential malpractice case on his hands and worry about the case spills over into his personal life as well. Over on the other side, Angela and her husband, Dominic, have reached a stasis in their marriage and are simply being “co-parents” to their children--teens Tim and Daisy (who has recently found God) and little Ben. Also, Angela continues to struggle with the loss of a child, Karen, nearly 18 years ago.

Over the course of the week, some ordinary and not-so-ordinary things happen that bring quiet revelations along with them. At the end of the week, the families have been altered in a strangely satisfying way and have learned to make peace with each other.

There are many family insights here but in the end, the story overall remains unresolved. Some family “secrets” even come across as mere cliches, made worse by everyone’s else’s predictable reactions to them.

Haddon has talent to waste and could have brought the family dynamics into sharper focus and crafted a more finely tuned story out of The Red House. There’s a very “been there, done that” kind of empathy that The Red House generates. After all, practically every one of us can relate to at least one aspect of the story. Yet since the story doesn’t really coalesce into a whole or come to any kind of closure, you begin to wonder at the point of it all. If we really wanted to just let family idiosyncrasies all hang loose, wouldn’t we simply revisit our annual Thanksgiving dinners?

Yet, in one sense, Haddon probably does have a point: Our family dinners do not come to a resolution either, do they? Just like in The Red House, an occasional grievance is aired and we move on, trying to make the best of every new day. After all, as Haddon asks, “Later, when parents fall from grace and become ordinary messed-up human beings and turn slowly from carers into people who must be cared for in their turn, who then will share those growing frustrations and pore over the million petty details of that long-shared soap opera carry that means nothing to others?” The answer, of course, is: we will. Haddon manages to show us that there is grace in our everyday failings. Is it enough to make The Red House a compelling read? Not quite. But it does make for a quick and breezy one.

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