I have previously reviewed two books by Abbi Waxman: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, and The Garden of Small Beginnings (click on the titles to see the reviews). This week I picked up the third, which turns out to be the second, its publication date falling in between the two. And the mom and two daughters who star in The Garden of Small Beginnings make a few cameo appearances in Other People’s Houses.
While I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as either of the other two, Waxman’s strongest talent, which is the creation of truly individual characters, was on point, and that made it worth reading more than did the story, which is somewhat slight. This one had less of a beginning, middle, and end, opting instead to give us vignettes of the lives in one Los Angeles neighborhood, more a series of episodes than a story with purpose until we reach the very end, when an emergency catalyzes some of the relationships and wraps things up nicely for many of the characters.
The main protagonist and voice is Frances, the carpool mom for the block. She points out in the beginning that after trying hard to rotate carpool duty between four families, it became obvious that it was just easier to let Frances do it, the other parents having outside jobs that constantly created chaos in the schedule. And Frances mostly relishes her chosen task of chauffeur to all the kids on her street, until one day when she walks in on one of the other moms participating in activity extracurricular to her marriage. She refrains from comment to anyone but Anne herself, but inevitably the word gets out another way, and causes each family on the block to question its own ties as one family amongst them breaks into pieces.
That description makes this sound like rather a somber book—infidelity, insecurity, the prospect of divorce, the re-examination of relationships—but in fact it’s anything but, because of the wonderful humor and empathy with which Waxman crafts her characters. She gives us all the sly pathos of parents doing rock-paper-scissors with each other as they desperately seek to avoid volunteering at the PTA meeting or attending the Saturday afternoon AYSO game. All the children have fully developed personalities and quirks of their own, and Waxman makes them real by “reporting” the genuine and hilarious things that they say, as children of a certain age. She creates a full spectrum of protagonists: the lesbian couple debating whether career or another baby will win out; the father struggling to care for his son as his wife undergoes chemotherapy in another state; the angry, betrayed husband who doesn’t know what to say to his daughter, who is insisting that he, like she, must accept Mommy’s apology and let her come back home. She rounds these out with delightfully snarky peripherals like Shelly, the hippy mom/gossip monger who “liked to question gender-normative naming conventions because ‘names carry such weight in our society.’ Frances often wondered how much weight being named after a water mammal, a fruit, a clear alcohol, and a farming term carried, but as the kids themselves were nice and easygoing, she’d never posed the question.” (The children are named Otter, Persimmon, Gin, and Arable.)
The initial infidelity becomes the vehicle that allows each person involved to question not only their own interactions with their partners, but how they relate to the world in general. When Shelly tries to “get the goods” on the story of Anne’s misdeed out of Frances, Frances is led to ponder how intimate one has to be with someone to ask about their marriage: friends for a decade? related by blood? thrown together on a sinking cruise liner? and rejects the false, fast intimacy created by proximity with the other parents in her children’s preschool. The book is also a delightful examination of children at different ages and stages, and what parenthood looks like—to the parents, to the children, and to those outside the immediate circle.
All in all, I started out writing this review to say that while I enjoyed the book, it wasn’t up to the standards of Waxman’s other two; but although it was different, I believe I have convinced myself, in the process, that it was!