Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Review of The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer

In The Children’s Crusade, Ann Packer gives us the long history of the Blair family. The father, Robert, purchases a piece of land in what is now Silicon Valley and builds a home for his future family. As his children grow up, the house becomes the family’s anchor and also the wedge between its members.

The story switches back and forth between the 1970s and the 2000s, when the family’s four adult children are deciding whether to sell the house after Robert’s death. The reader’s task is to figure out how and why the family comes to this particular crossroads.

As each child’s story unfolds, the reader begins to see how separate the mother is from the center of the family. In fact, the mother essentially moves out of the house into a shed on the property. But at the same time, her self-isolation becomes a new center around which the family begins to orbit. The “Children’s Crusade” in the title refers to the plan the kids hatch to get their mother’s attention. Packer wants us to consider the psychological dimensions of family roles.

I really did want to enjoy this book, and while it was very readable, I did not love it. For one, there’s not a lot of action here. This is a slow, meandering story. The chapters are long, with multiple changes in narrative perspective happening within each one. Finishing this novel required a surprising amount of perseverance.

But my biggest issue with this story was the development of Penny, the mother. For all of the attention Packer gives each character, rooting out each person’s shame and secrets and motivations, Penny remains rather one-dimensional and unsympathetic. And while Bad Mothering is a fascinating topic, I would have liked Penny to have the same complexity as the other characters.

(For fun, I just googled, “Bad mothers in literature,” and it turns out that Penny is not the only one! Who’s your favorite Mommie Dearest?)

I do tend to seek out and enjoy novels about dysfunctional families. Recent favorites in this broad category include The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. The Children’s Crusade is the second novel I’ve read in the last few months that has a “What should we do with the family house?” question as its centerpiece. Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread also follows adult children navigating their relationships with each other and the family legacy. In both cases, I struggled with the books’ pacing and structure and, ultimately, with the heavy hand of the house metaphors.

Most of the interviews with Ann Packer focus on her older work. Here’s one current article, and here are her tips for successful writing.

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