It has been a while since my last post, mainly because I've been reading and not wanting to write. Alas, I guess it's time to rejoin the conversation.
I had been procrastinating a post about Matthew Thomas' novel We are Not Ourselves, and in the meantime read Meghan Daum's memoir The Unspeakable. Why not combine my assessments into one review? (Lately, I've been into the idea of "economy.") So, let's start the comparison/contrast now:
We are Not Ourselves is a many-paged Irish family saga of growing up in NYC, yearning for a better life, and accepting the life you get. The Unspeakable is Daum's honest account of her foibles as a member of Generation-X. Similarity: both heavily rely on family themes to make this point--the American Dream is achievable only in piecemeal.
Exactly which part of the American Dream sputters is where the two books contrast. Eileen Leary, the mother in Thomas' book, wants all the trappings of financial prosperity~the successful husband, the big house, the beautiful child. Instead, she gets a unambitious professor, a duplex, and a reluctant son. As she bullies everyone into upward mobility, the family's infrastructure begins to erode, most notably shown by her husband's progression into dementia. Daum, in her memoir, is a bit more ambivalent (typical of Generation x) of what she wants in her American Dream. She has achieved financial success as a writer, but her path to marriage and family is paved with anguish and second guessing.
Where the books synchronize well is in the exploration of family relationships, collateral damage of dreams. The first essay of The Unspeakable titled "Matricide" is a somewhat sarcastic account of Daum's mother's career success, eventual illness and death. The reader can tell that this mother/daughter relationship was fraught, fraught, fraught. After divorcing Daum's father, her mother reinvented herself as the local high school drama teacher, following her own dream, but her daughter finds this metamorphosis inauthentic. She describes her mother as pretentious and a caricature of a "drama teacher." Daum's comments are mean-spirited, but anyone who's ever been a daughter understands why she's saying these things~her mother bugged the hell out of her and she's going to tell you about it. And anyone who's ever been a mother feels sorry for the mom and a little protective as well. "Matricide" is the perfect exploration of how a mother's dream can chafe the daughter; though the daughter might not like her mother, she still loves her.
The Leary family has similarly imperfect relationships with each other. Though both adults in the family work full-time in fairly good jobs, this effort produces none of the financial trappings Eileen so desperately wants. As son Connell gets older, he grows more aloof around his father and mother; there is a no joy in this household, perhaps because Eileen's constant push for financial success has sucked away any happiness and laughter. Ironically, it is through the father's descent into Alzheimer's that the family comes around to a sort of peace regarding the imperfection of their lives. A letter from father to son, written early in his diagnosis, is one the most beautiful expressions of parental love in literature. Again, like Daum's family, the Learys may not like each other, but the love that sustains them in crisis is very real.
So what exactly is the place of family in the American Dream? According to these two books, family is where the Dream takes its toll. Ambition, expectation, achievement, perfection~these things are not necessarily de facto good nor all of a piece. The family bears the brunt of these hard-line goals. But, as these books show, the American family has the opportunity and good fortune to make a separate peace from the American Dream, which should be rich enough for anyone.