I received this book for review consideration from the publisher, via Shelf Awareness for Readers. All opinions are my own.Stranger, Father, Beloved
Written by Taylor Larsen
Published by Gallery Books on July 12th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Coming of Age, Family Life
Source: publisher, via Shelf Awareness for Readers
In the tradition of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, a “mesmerizing, unsparing” (Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!) debut novel about a wealthy man who has reached a crossroads after a lifetime of repression and denial, sending him—and his family—into a slow spiral towards a total breakdown.
When Michael sees his wife Nancy chatting with a stranger at a party, his intuition tells him that he’s watching her with the man she should have married. He quickly begins a campaign to replace himself within his own family with this other man—who, to him, is worthier, better, and kinder—all so his faithful wife Nancy, his beautiful teenage daughter Ryan, and his young son Max can live the lives they deserve.
While Michael pursues this man’s friendship, Ryan goes through a period of sexual awakening and rebellion and distances herself from her family, and the quiet, weak Nancy becomes increasingly befuddled and frustrated by the behaviors of her husband and daughter. As tension and uncertainty build in their home, the James family slowly unravels.
With the quiet intensity of the film American Beauty and the emotional sensitivity of Lorrie Moore, Taylor Larsen creates a powerful and moving story about the fracturing of a family and its descent into chaos.
Stranger, Father, Beloved, a debut novel by Taylor Larsen, was going to be the first book I reviewed for Shelf Awareness for Readers after several months’ hiatus. Reviews for the Shelf are supposed to be recommendations; even if a book ends up not entirely working for you, if you can step back to see how it might appeal to a different reader and emphasize those aspects in writing about it, you can make your review “positive.” I decided not to submit a review for this novel because I couldn’t figure out how to set aside my issues with it, but I want to lay out some of them here.
I requested Stranger, Father, Beloved for review consideration because the premise sounded odd and intriguing
When a man spots his wife talking with a stranger and becomes convinced that he’s seeing her with the man she should have married, he begins planning to replace himself within his family.
and because the blurb from Tom Perrotta and the reference to American Beauty in the synopsis worked on me. I still think the premise is interesting, but the execution fell short for me.
Larsen shifts viewpoints back and forth between Michael James and his teenage daughter Ryan throughout the novel. Michael is a successful businessman who has struggled with mental illness since college; we learn early on that his medications have become less effective as he’s gotten older, and his actions certainly point toward some kind of imminent breakdown. Ryan is primarily defined by the ways she is acting out; despite that, I found her perspective more interesting than her father’s.
I don’t have to like the main character in a novel, but I really didn’t like Michael at all. Even making allowances for his “faulty wiring” and trying to treat him as an unreliable narrator didn’t shift my sympathies toward him. His disdain for his wife Nancy’s lack of intellect and elevated view of his own was off-putting, and when it’s strongly implied late in the novel that View Spoiler »his conflicted feelings about Nancy and excessive negative reaction to Ryan’s lesbian relationship might be rooted in his own deeply repressed homosexuality « Hide Spoiler, I wasn’t willing to make allowances for character-development choices–I was offended.
My own excessive negative reaction to that turn of events spurred my decision not to submit a review of this novel to Shelf Awareness, but it wasn’t the only reason. As I mentioned, Stranger, Father, Beloved is a debut novel, and for me, it read like one. I think Larsen has some ideas here that could have made this a good psychological thriller, but the suspense never built well or amounted to much. The character development was sketchy and the prose frequently felt overly mannered; in short, the writing just didn’t engage me.
I don’t think a novel can be a disappointment if you go into it with no real expectations. For me, Stranger, Father, Beloved was a disappointment. If you read this one and have a different take on it, please come talk to me about it–I’d like to be able to change my mind!
STRANGER, FATHER, BELOVED by Taylor Larsen: Excerpt (via Bookreporter.com)
“At the party’s end, Michael stared outside at the lamppost, which lit up a section of the driveway and left the rest in darkness. It was getting colder; the spring nights still had their chill. Stray fog was drifting through his yard as it always did; he could see an occasional flicker as it blanketed the light post. The clouds moved quickly out here over the rocky coasts and dark, cold waters surrounding their peninsula; the sky was constantly in motion with charged gray matter—above, a mass moving purposefully forward; below, playful swirls of mist skipping over the houses and trees, causing mischief. Some of Rhode Island was tacky, but this little strip of land was positively wild and elegant, he felt, like an old English marsh. If he got too caught in his head, he knew to come outside. The cool, wind-filled air always dissipated his anxiety, the paranoia that had marred his life. It was like an evil growth, a malignancy that clung to his side and made thoughts arrive in his mind at a different timbre from regular people’s.
“The paranoid brain was fast and often perceived an innocent look or comment as mocking or cruel; hints were amplified and meanings distorted. Talking with other people could be a horrifying experience, though Michael could usually pass for normal. Most of the pain was internal, a private hell that his silent, brooding twin offered up daily tickets to. To make matters worse, the older he got, the less his medication seemed to work. It still put a sheath over about thirty-five percent of the anxiety, but the rest stayed strong and functional, doing what it did best. At work, though he was admired and had made it into senior management, nothing to worry about anymore, he still had to flick a switch when talking to other people. That clicked on the full smile and the easy handshake, which banished the dark thoughts and lit up his eyes, creating the impression that the person before him was the most important person in the world. The autoswitch clicked off once he left the conversation, and the great swell of tension returned and claimed him again.
“But coming outside seemed to free him from the dark mass and the dark mind, and the elements of wind, water, and earth pulled him away from himself.”