In this quirky and original tale, the narrator Rosemary Cooke introduces us to her dysfunctional family: father a college psychology professor, “a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, fly-fishing atheist from Indianapolis”, mother regularly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and intriguing elephants in the room: the two older siblings, Lowell and Fern who have left home abruptly and are no longer in contact.
This is the kind of novel that depends on the order in which details are revealed and about thirty per cent of the way in, the author casually drops a bombshell which obliged me to go back and reread from the beginning to check for missed clues. Beneath an entertaining veneer, the story explores the effects of an academic psychologist’s decision to conduct an experiment on his family, and also the reliability of childhood memory.
At first, the wisecracking American style and habit of addressing the reader is by turns amusing and irritating, but not moving:
“My father made a crude joke….If the joke were witty, I’d include it, but it wasn’t. You’d think less of him and thinking less of him is my job, not yours.” Yet gradually, as the implications of a disconcerting, even shocking, situation become clear, the humour – often very funny – helps to make the poignancy and sadness more bearable.
At times, this seems an odd mixture of story, polemic against animal testing and popular psychology textbook, with some of the author’s background research slotted into chapters in a slightly disjointed and didactic fashion. The desire to follow the plot and understand the various theories tend to pull the reader in different directions. It’s easy to miss interesting points on the first reading, like the quotations from Kafka at the beginning of each section, particularly well-judged when you realise why they are there. There’s also food for thought in the idea that Thomas More’s Utopia relied on a warlike tribe to fight its battles, and slaves to kill animals to provide its meat.
I would give five stars for the zany yet telling flights of creative thought, although I found the subplot with Rosemary’s friend Harlow weaker than the main story of the Cooke family, and the narration is often repetitious and perhaps a little trite at the very end.