Read This: “May We Be Forgiven” is a Bleak but Compelling Story of Dysfunction

may we

One quick note on this busy Sunday: I have a review of Kat Von D’s “Go Big or Go Home” in today’s Buffalo News, so make sure to check it out — the book proved to be a pleasant surprise.

Speaking of book reviews, here is one that I wrote a few months ago, for a novel that just came back in the news in a big way. In early June, author A.M. Homes won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel “May We Be Forgiven.” This is a major award, and this is a very good book. I’m not sure if a film or TV adaptation is planned, but it is certainly worthy of one.

Here is my review, from December 9, 2012:

A.M. Homes’ “May We Be Forgiven” opens with a Thanksgiving celebration from hell, a gloriously grim cornucopia of secret kisses, eye-rolling lies and unsettling commentary.

As our protagonist, Harold Silver, puts it before setting the scene, “Do you want my recipe for disaster?” That’s a good word for it. You’ll be aching for them all to choke on their turkey by page 3 — Harold included.

And that is why it’s difficult not to have a love-hate relationship with Homes’ novel. It is sad, darkly funny, occasionally moving, but above all, singularly unpleasant. That makes it one of 2012’s most compelling — yet undeniably dreary — literary experiences. Ultimately, it’s a great success.

Homes is the author of several acclaimed novels, most notably “The Safety of Objects,” “This Book Will Save Your Life” and “Music for Torching,” along with a memoir, “The Mistress’s Daughter.”

As that title indicates, she is an adept chronicler of American familial dysfunction.

Case in point: The brothers Silver. Harold is a Nixon scholar in midlife, stuck in an awkward, childless marriage to a wife who is perennially working. (“Claire is still at the office; she is always at the office. Another man would think his wife is having an affair; I just think Claire is smart.”)

Harold’s younger brother, George, is, quite simply, nightmarish — almost unbelievably so. This was always the case, Harold explains:

“He entered the world eleven months after me, sickly at first, not enough oxygen along the way, and was given far too much attention. And then, despite what I repeatedly tried to tell him about how horrible he was, he acted as though he believed he was a gift of the gods.”

He was taller, stronger, more successful, and married to a woman Harold lusted after. She is Jane, and she is not above surprising Harold with a sloppy smack on the lips, while, just outside the kitchen door, her husband pontificates, her sister-in-law listens, and her children watch TV.

Whatever his flaws, Harold is our protagonist, and, when an already cracked family unit is confronted with crisis, he takes control. George is arrested, and a suburban cop explains why: “He ran a red light, plowed into a minivan, husband was killed on impact, the wife was still alive at the scene — in the back seat, next to the surviving boy.” After being freed by the Jaws of Life, she soon expired (“Her legs fell out of the car”), and the lives of the Silvers — all of them — will never be the same again.

George is eventually hospitalized. He has cracked, and is increasingly erratic.

But he is let out, and arrives home to find Harold asleep next to Jane, and …The result leaves Jane unconscious (and soon dead), George in even worse trouble, and Harold curiously unmoved. He is a stoic, unemotional narrator who nevertheless takes on the burden of his brother’s household.

As “May We Be Forgiven” moves forward, Harold becomes more of a father figure to his niece and nephew, but also more unpredictable.

He begins a series of random sexual encounters with women met online, yes, but also seeks out Ricardo, the child left orphaned by his brother’s recklessness, at his nephew Nate’s urging.

In the ultimate sign of “growth” — Harold does grow, with much sighing — he takes Nate, Ricardo and niece Ashley to South Africa for Nate’s Bar Mitzvah.

And then, 365 days after the Thanksgiving scene that began “May We Be Forgiven,” the novel ends.

Homes is a piercing writer, and one with the ability to craft a simple sentence with devastating effectiveness. She has written a fiercely original novel, I think, one as fractured, messy and joyous as a story of 20th century family should be.

And in Harold Silver, Homes has created a defiantly damaged American male: flawed, struggling, sexually charged, and, only after much prodding, adult enough to truly grow up.

This is an end result that is not altogether tidy, but is certainly proper. It’s not unsurprising that Homes concludes the novel with a “happy” ending, and I’m glad she did. After all that came before it, it’s not just earned — it’s downright necessary. I’m not sure the reader could handle anything less.

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