Friday, September 19, 2014

Book Review: "Reunion" by Hannah Pittard

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

The literary canon is full of novels about family dysfunction, with more than a few books focusing on the challenges which ensue when family members come together to mourn the death of one of their own. Sometimes hijinks ensue (such as in Jonathan Tropper's superlative This is Where I Leave You), and other times, things turn out infinitely more maudlin.

Hannah Pittard's new novel, Reunion, falls somewhere squarely between the two. Kate Pulaski is a screenwriter struggling both professionally and personally. Her marriage is dissolving (and she's not sure just how upset she is about that) and she is trying to dig herself out of a great deal of debt. Just before her flight home to Chicago is about to take off, she learns that her estranged and oft-married father has committed suicide.

While this is shocking, she is even more surprised to learn that Elliot and Nell, her older brother and sister, are heading to Atlanta, where they all grew up, to go to the funeral and try to figure out what caused their father to kill himself, despite the fact that none of them had seen him for several years. And worse than that, they expect Kate to join them.

"I have a quick, searing feeling that the entire weekend is going to be a series of still lifes starring me and my siblings standing awkwardly three abreast, each of us waiting for one of the others to make the first move."

The siblings reunite and get together with Sasha, their father's fifth wife (who happens to be around the same age as them) and the daughter of their six-year-old half-sister. Of course, their father's suicide isn't the only thing weighing them down emotionally. Elliot has fears that his own marriage might be falling apart, Nell is unhappy with her own life, and Kate has a number of issues—not the least of which are her drinking problem, her inability to tell the truth, and her tendency to say whatever she wants, no matter who it might hurt.

As Kate, Elliot, and Nell deal with their own problems, and their unresolved feelings about their father, they also must navigate the presence of Sasha and Mindy, as well as the envy, jealousy, and childhood rivalries that once again rear their ugly heads. And how they deal with these issues may have a profound effect on their lives and their relationships with each other.

Much as in Pittard's first novel, the fantastic The Fates Will Find Their Way, her beautiful prose and storytelling talent are on full display in Reunion. While there certainly are emotionally charged scenes in the book, it's not particularly depressing, and in fact, Pittard shows glimpses of a dark humor from time to time. Kate is quite an unsympathetic character (although it's easy to understand why), but her behavior is a bit like watching a car wreck—it's upsetting but you can't seem to look away. It takes a talented writer to sustain your interest in, and your enjoyment of, characters who aren't particularly likeable, ones you'd like to shake a time or two.

My father died unexpectedly in May, and while that incident caused tremendous upheaval in my life and those of my mother and siblings, reading Reunion I felt that no matter what challenges we dealt with, we clearly weren't in bad shape compared to the Pulaski family. This is a complex book, but an enjoyable and emotionally complex one. Definitely makes you think how you'd handle the same situations.

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