In her compelling new novel, Ann Packer explores five decades in the complicated lives of the Blair family. Focusing on what happens when children grow up with mismatched parents, she juggles multiple points of view, panoramic perspectives, and acute psychological close-ups as her characters narrate their own stories and figure out who they are and where they belong.
Like the first children’s crusade in 1212, the Blair children’s equally well-intended crusade also fails. Penny Blair’s three sons and a daughter, hoping to draw her into their activities, make lists, “brainstorm[ing] things we thought she’d like.” The fallout from their inability to engage their distracted mother, who seems to lack a crucial maternal chip, lies at the heart of Packer’s novel. This wrinkle in what the children otherwise might envision as the long smooth line of family life continues to affect them well into adulthood.
The book starts when Bill Blair, back from the Korean War and haunted by “memories of men blown open,” discovers a majestic oak surrounded by 3 acres in what would later become Silicon Valley. On the spur of the moment, he buys the land. The grandson of a doctor, the son of a banker, and “an exemplary housekeeper,” he wants to put down roots, raise a family, build a home. Convinced that “children deserve care,” he becomes a pediatrician.
The day Bill brings in his father’s watch for repair, he meets Penny. Right away he decides she’ll make a suitable wife. After all, they both want three children; they both are lonely. Red flags rise, however. When he shows her the land where they will live, “it no longer seemed quite so splendid . . . the change had come about when he started bringing her with him to see it.”
If Penny is the original wet blanket, hard to like, Bill, loved by all, is almost too good to be true. Perfect father, upright citizen, devoted family man, he carves three R’s into the wet foundation of his shed; these initials represent the children he and Penny plan to have. It’s not hard to feel sympathy for Penny, who has to live up to and live with such a saint.
After the births of Robert, Rebecca, and Ryan, Penny, “truly beleaguered — a woman not cut out for the job of raising four children,” becomes pregnant with James, an unwanted baby, an accident. James grows up as the fly in the three-R ointment. A son whose father has 31 separate addresses for him, he is a dropout, a wanderer, the quintessential troublemaker — the opposite of his accomplished doctor, psychiatrist, and teacher siblings. As Rebecca remarks, “ ‘Oh James.’ That’s the Blair family mantra, isn’t it? ‘What will we do about James?’ ” Though it’s easy to blame James when Penny decides to seek an artist’s life outside their household, Bill, too, is at fault. “You don’t even want me here, [Penny tells him] . . . all you care about is the kids.”
Not surprisingly, the kids grow up cherished by their father, resentful of their mother. After Penny moves to Taos, N.M., and Bill dies, James, in full “Cherry Orchard” mode, urges the sale of the family house. He needs the money; he’s in love. Will Penny, who holds a stake in the property, agree? The three R’s balk at the prospect of losing what they see as a symbol of their roots, their ties to Bill, and their shared past.
As the details accumulate, as each character’s story builds, Packer’s writing gains depth and power. By the end, all the separate threads weave a complex, textured tapestry. What a gift to the reader, who will certainly recognize and identify with the novel’s universal themes of those knotted ties that bind, the varied meanings of home, and, in particular, the many ways the child is father to the man.
THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE
By Ann Packer
Scribner, 448 pp., $26.99