by Jacquelyn Lewis

Miriam Toews’ newest novel is heartbreaking and charming, yet the plot leaves something to be desired.

Miriam Toews’ newest novel is the story of a family in crisis: a mother is hospitalized after a breakdown, leaving a teenage son to act out, an eccentric preteen daughter to suffer from neglect, and their 20-something Aunt Hattie to manage this deteriorating situation. What does Hattie do to cope? Go on a road trip, of course, with grieving and confused teenagers in tow.

What makes this story a little more unusual than the standard dysfunctional family drama is the quirkiness of each character. Thebes, the preteen eccentric, mixes a blend of hip-hop slang, youthful enthusiasm, and old-soul sensibility, which can be both jarring and amusing. Her brother, Logan, ventures between the slouch of the angry young man and the shrug of the sensitive sibling. Hattie, the narrator, is at turns bemused, infuriated, and moved by it all, and presumably, this is what we the readers should also feel.

Unfortunately, a key force in this story is missing: Min, the hospitalized mother, never really emerges as a full character. Hattie tries to reassure us (and herself) that Min, pre-breakdown, was compelling and charming, but we see her acting only as an indifferent parent and a frail invalid. It is hard to identify with the loss of someone when you have no clear sense of who has been lost. It is the heartbreaking particularity of fiction that can move readers, and while there are many details to savor in this novel, the character whose tragedy drives the plot remains, to the end, something of a blank.

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