The Summer We Fell Apart **** by Robin Antalek
I’m joining Jain with my Edible Book Review at Food for Thought, where “pages from your book magically mix with the kitchen and your camera”.
This story is told in five separate parts, by the four Haas siblings~ from their points of view, and followed by a brief epilogue, wrapped up by their mother, Marilyn. Marilyn, a vain, chain-smoking, aging actress~ is uninvolved and bored with the her two remaining teenagers’ lives. Kate, the oldest Haas sibling, is daddy’s girl~ tough, an ever practical attorney, to whom winning is important. Finn, next in age, is a self-destructive alcoholic who drops out of college his sophomore year to work construction. His habit of drinking and not showing up for work, keeps him unemployed. George is the gay brother, kind and closest to the youngest sister Amy, the baby of the family. Amy is an artist and the most observant sibling~ she refers to George as the “straightest-gay man” she knows.
The first part is told from Amy’s perspective, and she explains that by the time she was born, her father’s career had peaked:
“Years before he had written a play (about a large dysfunctional family go figure) that made it to Broadway and ran for nearly three years, winning several Tonys, including one for my dad, only to follow it up with four more plays that closed after five month, three months, six weeks, and the worst–opening night.”
To make matters worse for her parents’ marriage, this coincided with her mother’s career reviving and becoming a “cult” actress. Her father takes a job as head of a theater department in a college three hours away, which resulted in him gone four to five days a week.
“In terms of parental guidance, George and I may as well have been raised by wolves.”
“The summer we took in a boarder my mother took to wearing elaborate headscarves. They were adorned with elaborate patterns and colors as if a fistful of crayons had melted on her head. Often she wore more than one at a time twisted around each other and tied low at the nape of her neck so a plume of silk cascaded down her back. They were so odd an affectation that it prompted, Miriam, to ask me if my mother was sick…Truth was I had no explanation for the scarves, although I guessed they were probably the result of my mother getting home late from the theater with mussed up, dirty hair.”
“It was as if we were a walking advertisement for our parents’ inability to keep their hands off each other after a fight, especially since we were four children with such loud, dramatic and decidedly absent parents. I guess in some regards we were lucky to have been born before the advent of increased child-and-family services.”
“I purchased the pack of cigarettes that may have killed my father five days after he made a miraculous recovery from surgery for a brain tumor. . .
Since he was give a second chance at life, I waited to hear him atone for years of neglect or even tell me he loved me. Instead what my father said to me was, ‘Amy baby, I really need a smoke.’ A day later he was dead from a massive seizure and I was scared to admit to anyone that I had given him the cigarettes.”
Making arrangements for their father’s funeral, they are at odds on a proper church funeral~ they cave to Kate’s wishes. She insists on providing each of them with an urn, so they could all have a piece of their father: “The original idea touted to us was that we could scatter Dad’s ashes wherever we wanted, wherever we had a special memory of him. I could not come up with a single memory unless I included his final days in the hospital, which I didn’t. For all I knew my conception might have been his last attempt at parenting.”
Amy and her musician/boyfriend, live in a large “bowling alley-like space”, that is painted various shades of creamsicle-orange, purple and red. Their bedroom is a former storage loft, where they sleep in a “nest of down and pillows.” In typical Kate-fashion, she disapproves of Amy’s funeral attire, her hair, and her living conditions. Amy on the other hand, understands Kate’s absence at her father’s sick bed: “She revered our father with a blind adoration that the rest of us did not possess. If she had witnessed the physical ravages his illness had inflicted on his wasted body, his diminishing mental capacities, she wouldn’t be able to cope.”
Amy observes her brothers and sisters at the funeral:
“This was our family now. And while I knew that for some family was everything, protection against the cold, cruel world, I only really experienced that with George. With the others, we viewed each other more as obstacles to be negotiated, not shelter. It scared me to think that Finn had yet to hit bottom even though he was trying his hardest and that Kate just didn’t give a damn about any of us. And while we each had our own issues, Kate made me the saddest of all– she just seemed to view life as one long tangle of disappointments.”
“George contemplated the fact that Amy, who’d gone on scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design, could make almost anything with her hands–except food.”
Cheese Fondue, recipe courtesy Tyler Florence
Like Amy, food isn’t a priority for the rest of the Haas household. Seventeen-year-old Kate, by default, becomes mom and dad to her siblings~forging permission slips & signing report cards while buying groceries and laundry detergent when necessary. Meals are jarred pasta sauce and noodles. Fortunately for me, there were some food mentions in Kate’s chapter when she moves to Italy with her boyfriend/fiance after graduation, where they live and she teaches English. If not for that, I was looking at ways to be creative with packaged Asian snack mix (past its expiration date :- ) and beans and pasta that Finn forages from the pantry.
Frittata with Asparagus, Tomato, and Fontina~ courtesy Giada De Laurentiis
I did make one change to this recipe~ I added a 4 oz. package of cubed Pancetta prior to adding the asparagus spears to the pan. And next time, I’d add a tad more cheese :-)
Another food passage during Kate’s time in Italy. . .
Figs with Balsamic Vinegar, Mascarpone, and Walnuts~ recipe courtesy Epicurious
I made one slight change to this recipe, I substituted honey for the sugar called for, I’m not sure it makes a difference but the book mentioned honey so I made the switch :-)
For reasons unknown to her siblings, Kate returns from Italy alone and applies to law school. Pursuing law with Herculean force, she graduates at the top of her class and takes a job in Washington, D.C.
Kate counts her cigarettes, believing if she can still count them, she wasn’t a nicotine addict:
“Any addictions were a sign of weakness, and as far as Kate was concerned, self-discipline, self-control, and self-deprivation were worthy characteristics in any attorney. Her only allowable excess should be her job.”
The lemon tree on the dilapidated property Kate finds, is the selling point~ symbolic to her time in Italy. Despite her longer commute and all the work to be done and money required, she immediately pictures herself home there, picking lemons.
“Above the sink was a window that looked out onto a gnarled tree so loaded with lemons that they grew double, even triple from the branches, the skin of the fruit stretched tight, so swollen with juice that the pointed tips of the lowest-hanging ones rested on the ground.”
Kate’s plan is to give Finn a job and hopefully help him turn his life around, while renovating her house. She thinks back to the last time she saw him at her father’s funeral:
“Finn had worn a suit so old and ill-fitting that something in Kate had broken when she saw him. He’d reeked of mouthwash, she supposed, to hide the booze. And his face was raw and nicked to shit because he had obviously taken a razor to it for the first time in months. She didn’t know whether to turn away from him or hug him.”
“Somehow she had gleaned from Richard that normalcy was a compromise, and so she never tried for balance, going right for the extreme and damn the consequences, which were, in retrospect, the lives of her children. Loving them was an abstract idea. Raising children was the more complicated task, which she had failed. She was too selfish, too young, had neither the energy or desire where her children were concerned.”
I enjoyed this dysfunctional family. Kate’s story is revealing~you learn how her relationship and desire for her father’s approval influences her decisions. I have to say I enjoyed Amy & George’s relationship and their chapters the most. It interesting to me how differently the brothers and sisters reacted to the circumstances of their upbringing. Warning: this book is peppered with these siblings’ sexual experiences and I found Finn’s chapter very unnerving. His self-destructive behavior and his sexual encounters were disturbing~ consequently I didn’t spend much time on him in this review. (Parts were hard enough to read the first time around). Nevertheless, there is an overall feeling of love and hope among these family members at the end of the book that was a great relief and pleasant surprise to me. I think you’ll learn to love these brothers and sisters, flaws and all~ for some, it just takes a little longer :-)
“Marilyn took a deep breath and then exhaled. There was a puff of frost in her breath and she pulled the shawl tighter around her shoulders. She looked again at her children, at Saul. It was more than she ever dared to imagine.”
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