Housebreaking by Dan Pope, review by Bruce Jacobs
Is there anything left to say about suburban family dissolution and the edgy temptations of adultery that Updike, Cheever, Moody, Homes, Perrotta, etc., etc., haven't already said? As it turns out, there is. In Housebreaking, Dan Pope's second novel, the uneasy cohesion of two suburban Hartford families comes unglued across generations. When Cadillac dealer Benjamin Mandelbaum gets booted from the home of his wife and children, he takes his dog and moves in with his widowed father, Leonard, the glad-handing, generous founder of their Wintonbury dealership, who is being wooed by a dead acquaintance's smart-mouthed widow, Terri. Benjamin is "hollow and alone" and asks himself: "Was that all he could expect of life, a falling away of everything that had once made up happiness?"
When Leonard has a near fatal stroke, Benjamin is left to walk his aging dog and try to sell cars in a down market--until he chances to meet Audrey Martin, a former high school classmate newly moved to Wintonbury, walking her dog. Their dogs sniff each other out and quickly become playmates on their walks--as do their owners. Benjamin's not quite ready to give up his family, but Audrey is a great comfort--"it was enough having her beside him nearly every night, possessing her, even if only for a short time."
If the Mandelbaums have their troubles, the Martin-Murrays have even more. Audrey's husband, Andrew Murray, is a high-powered litigation lawyer in a new position at his New York firm's Hartford office. Chillingly efficient and hardworking, he has no qualms about stepping on associates as he establishes his superiority--until one junior lawyer plans a career-ending, squalid, sexual harassment plot against Andrew. With her parents preoccupied with their problems and with the haunting memory of her older brother killed in a car wreck, teen daughter Emily Martin-Murray becomes a pill-swiping, reclusive, flirtatious hellion. Over the course of one summer and fall, the secretive intertwined troubles of the Martin-Murrays and the Mandelbaums come unraveled over the always-fraught Thanksgiving holiday. As Emily observes of her family's dinner table: "What was the point? Why maintain the pretense, sitting with joined hands to break bread, their sorry threesome, dressed in their Sunday finery, uttering banalities?"
Pope (In the Cherry Tree) presents these broken suburban families with a narrative that moves the story along with straightforward plotting and rich characterization. If Emily, Leonard and Terri are the generational outliers in the primary drama of Audrey, Andrew, Benjamin and Judy, they are also the most colorful characters. They bring a fresh piquant taste to a plot that has been worked many times in many ways--and likely will be worked again. Suburban families are too rich a vein of modern life to avoid heavy fiction mining. The fresh rewards come with the strength of the storytelling--like that in Pope's Housebreaking.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.