Ann Leary, The Children (2016)
Ann Leary’s new novel caught my eye largely because of its Connecticut setting, as I’ve been looking for representatives from that state for my Reading New England challenge. And the setting — a slowly disintegrating lakeside estate, situated near an insular town and private school — is indeed very important to the book, and quintessentially New England.
The longtime retreat of the proud, wealthy (and stingy) Whitman family, Lakeside is now home to former patriarch Whit Whitman’s widow Joan, and her two daughters from another marriage, Sally and Charlotte. Charlotte, who rarely leaves Lakeside, is the narrator, and as she tells her rambling, discursive story we slowly come to see the cracks in the family foundations. For the house is actually owned by the sons of Whit’s first wife, and when one of them brings his prospective bride into the women’s sanctuary, it brings up ghosts from the past that still have power to wound and destroy.
In counterpoint to the claustrophobic pull of this singular place is the bewildering, fast-moving realm of the digital world, through which anyone can go anywhere and be anything without leaving home. Charlotte, the reclusive homebody — don’t call her agoraphobic! — has a secret, highly social, and lucrative life on the Internet; e-mails, texts, computer hacking, blogging, and social media all have their role to play in this modern twist on the age-old story of the snake in the grass. Leary pokes fun at the superficial, inauthentic nature of much of our online life, while pointing out some of its very real dangers.
Charlotte’s voice is funny, endearing, and sad, as she gradually circles toward the real matter at the heart of the family’s disconnect. Through her half-knowing, half-naive perspective Leary skillfully drops in bits of information that keep us guessing and engaged to the very end of this short novel. I’d definitely recommend it for reading by the side of any lake this summer.