On the shelf
By Lynn Steger Strong
Mariner: 240 pages, $28
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Three siblings and their partners have gathered for the December break in an unspecified town in upstate New York, just a short walk from the banks of the Hudson River. The most important thing about this place is that it allows snow, occasionally a lot of it and sometimes even at Christmas. In her new novel, Flight, Lynn Steger Strong harnesses the gifts of winter to great effect, laying the groundwork for a plot that’s decidedly and deliberately vintage – in the best way.
The stage is set as three siblings prepare to gather with their nuclear broods for the holidays: Kate has three children with husband Josh; Martin has two with wife Tess; Henry and his wife Alice, this year’s hosts, are reluctantly childless. All coping as best they can with the all-too-recent loss of their mother, Helen, with behaviors ranging from cooking, pruning, and dressing to drinking, sniping, and meddling.
Except Josch. His contribution to the celebrations is by slipping outside to build an igloo for the children, which the other adults find frivolous and think he’s shirk responsibility: “At least this company has unlike so many of his others something vaguely to do with parenting. Observant readers will not be surprised that the igloo plays a part in the story’s climax, although they may be surprised at how easily their attention was distracted by the author’s elegant scenes.
The central tension between Helen’s descendants has to do with the matriarch’s Florida home—again, unspecified location, although it’s clearly idyllic: Henry, a multimedia artist who studies species extinction, would be happiest if the property A sanctuary for birds known as snail kites could be sold to a non-profit conservation organization. Martin, whose longtime position in academia is under threat following a #MeToo scandal, is hoping to make as much money as possible from the sale.
Kate has something completely different in mind: she wants to move there full-time with her husband and children. But she resents having to ask. She wants her siblings to “look at her and see that it takes her to realize they’re running out of money without her and Josh having to admit it.”
In her previous novel, Want, Strong outlined the precarious state of the creative class – another kind of species collapse – through a struggling family. Again, money, or lack of it, has the omnipresent gravity. But it is her skill with the details of habit and personality that gives life and action to this novel.
Like the birds that form the book’s leitmotif, Strong’s writing soars effortlessly from the characters’ stories into their present situations, landing here with the two brothers, there with the three women, and then returning to the age-old chaos, children through the gantlet to run from dinner, baths and bed. She could easily have stayed with this family and their ultimate noble causes: Tess is a high-ranking attorney, Kate is a full-time parent, Josh is a trust-fund baby whose money has run out. But Strong has more plans.
Henry and Alice seem to occupy a different room. They met while attending art school in Manhattan, where Alice had a major performance that earned a review in the New York Times. Henry, who hasn’t reached those heights, becomes an artistic workhorse, spending most of his time in the backcountry crafting detailed birds for a project he’s literally keeping under wraps – covering his creations with a sheet. The couple thought they were going to have children, but Alice goes through a painful series of miscarriages and realizes that using up her savings on IVF means she needs to find paid work.
Luckily she had studied art and social work; After some tests and certifications, she can become a clerk in the town where Henry inherited the house from his parents. We begin to learn about one of her charges from Alice’s perspective; She has great concern and affection for a 7-year-old girl named Maddie who is reunited with her 23-year-old mother Quinn after a period in foster care after Quinn’s heroin overdose.
By allowing us to meet Maddie through Alice’s eyes, Strong performs the equivalent of a reverse nosedive, leading readers to believe that she could save mother and daughter. But Alice, while well intentioned, is needy. One of Henri Nouwen’s ‘wounded healers’ finest literary examples in recent memory, her determination to stick to the rules is matched only by her inability to respect boundaries. In a one-sided way she got used to Maddie and Quinn.
As Quinn and Maddie take tentative steps to rebuild their tiny family unit, we cut back and forth between them and Christmas Day preparations in the big house. The absent Helen seems strangely large for someone we only know about through memories. She had a certain mix of apples for her pies, certain beliefs about how everyone should dress to eat. To be honest, Helen – who everyone praises for her housekeeping – sounds like a control freak. At one point during the serving of Christmas dinner, we learn that Kate is wearing “a rich green velvet dress,” a gift from her mother that “pulls tightly across her chest and back and holds tight.” The mother’s idea of a good fit doesn’t work for the daughter.
No wonder the conversations between the women — the exchanges between Tess and Kate, Alice and Quinn, Tess and Alice — are Flight’s meatiest knots. Like the bird presented at the table, women tend to be segmented in our society according to our needs—here a soft bosom of comfort, there a sinewy wing of discipline. As Helen’s children struggle with her absence, they want to claim the parts of her they loved most while throwing away the messiest parts.
Everyone gathered has to deal with a very big mess after Quinn anxiously calls Alice to tell her Maddie is missing. Alice and Quinn become search party friends and learn more about each other than they ever would have otherwise. Mutual empathy could create thaw, hope for the future. But the hardest lesson Strong shares on Flight is that not every story can have a satisfying ending. True reconciliation, security, stability, fulfillment: These are goals on a forever uncertain trajectory – but, like this novel, interspersed with moments of transcendence.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-11-08/lynn-steger-strong-flight-holiday-novel-review Review: Lynn Steger Strong’s new holiday novel, ‘Flight’