Genealogy presents as a spider web of chemical instability and family life, through which we pick our way to monster in the center: who or what, if anything, has caused the daughter’s descent into mental illness?
The parents of the Hennart family are over-intellectual narcissists or, more charitably, adult orphans who understand the family lives they have rejected far better than the one they want, or the one they have. Bernard, a recently fired professor much older than his wife, envies the religious ecstasy of long-dead mystics. He rejects, even ridicules his wife’s rediscovered Benedictine spirituality as a lingering superstition of her tragic childhood, but naively loses himself in accounts of a 19th-century teenage stigmatic. Samantha, who unknowingly carries a potential aneurysm in her brain, seems to be 18 years into untreated post-partum depression as well as two decades of writer’s block. Unlike her husband’s yearning for “something beyond,” she both fears and craves relationships that are concretely mundane. They both retreat into separate studios to “work,” producing nothing, seduced away from action by soft research and contemplation.
Outside these rooms, they don’t interact so much as ritualistically converse, interrupting to disparage each other’s verbal tics, and repeat processed family stories. They believe, but don’t realise that they believe, that their small family’s world can be controlled by repeated rational definitions.
Jammed into the spare corners of this intellectually crowded house are two adult, or nearly adult, children. As the novel begins, Ryan is gone, part banished and part fled. He struggles with a psychological marijuana addiction—somewhat like his father, wanting to feel something different from his own life and thoughts—and a nervy general malaise, the victim of his parents’ self-centred definitions as both their son (and likeness) and his sister’s emotional father.
His sister, Marguerite, is what traps him, him and his mother, by their own need to live up to a vague maternal standard. Once ejected from the house, the brother is eager to have a life away from both his parents, whom he sometimes loathes, and his sister, whose clingy love demands total absorption. Samantha has never connected with her as a mother, and now attempts to do so by turning Marguerite into the subject of a research project. Marguerite’s father attempts to connect as well, with a younger image of his now 18-year-old daughter who used to love stories, but emotionally poisons her with stories of his stigmatic obsession. Alone with her parents, and the horny Benedictine builder brought in to upgrade the bathroom into a turn of the (19th) century therapy zone, Marguerite rapidly begins to resemble one of Harry Harlow’s monkeys.
Shifting from present to stories within stories, the first half of the novel establishes a household that resembles an emotional foot-binding, a sustained attempt to create and maintain a family narrative that allows for no growth. The novel begins at the moment of disintegration, of the family and the individuals inside, which unexpectedly leaves the interloping builder at the centre. The second half seems to have been written at a later time, as it leaves the interlocking circles of perspective behind and races deeper into anxiety—will these people reconnect in time to salvage anything of the family relationships, rescuing Marguerite and themselves?
Endings are always difficult in backstory-heavy sagas. Here, it is satisfying in one sense—the family members feeling that they’ve individually touched something greater than themselves and making new lives out of the stifling past—but one of the lynchpins of the change and the one who grounds and advises them is a character named Hyuen, who is never fleshed out. Why he would tie himself to a difficult person and family is unknown, leaving him uncomfortably close to the magical ethnic figure—unless the cynic who would assume he needs to be surrounded by dysfunctional people needing his guidance is correct, and he is meant to be a final example of unhealthy mental spaces.
With the family members, however, the right questions are answered and the bittersweet ones left a mystery. They go on, satisfied, more or less, with “small comforts that are no small comfort.”