Lynn Steger Strong’s slender but affecting new novel, “Flight,” ventures into this familiar terrain with a deft touch and an intuitive grasp of her characters. There’s an easy rhythm here: She’s in no rush as she roves among her cast, who gather in a rambling house in Upstate New York. Henry, the host, and Alice, his wife, have resigned themselves to childlessness in the aftermath of five miscarriages, devoting themselves to their nieces and nephews. Their artistic careers have stagnated, though, prompting different responses: He withdraws into his studio, preoccupied with climate change and seemingly incapable of earning a decent wage, while Alice has shifted to social work. She smokes to handle her stress.
By contrast Henry’s brother Martin and sister-in-law Tess are the quintessential Manhattan power couple — a college professor and a “too thin,” aloof attorney — with a special-needs son and a cherubic daughter. But they are grappling with their own quandary: Martin is under investigation for a rude comment about a female student. Kate, Henry and Martin’s sister, lacks her brothers’ charisma but has forged a solid marriage with Josh, juggling discontents with the care of a daughter and twin sons, one of whom bites other kids and has thus placed them beneath a clinical microscope.
The catalyst for this Yuletide-in-hell is the matriarch, Helen, whose recent death because of a stroke haunts them all as surely as Marley’s ghost stalked Scrooge. In an annual custom, the siblings and their spouses had spent Christmas with Helen in their childhood home in Florida; but a stroke stole her away in the spring. Her absence is the core of “Flight.” They can’t call her obsessively (Strong makes hay of this detail), so they don’t know how to conduct their lives. The author recounts each character’s connection to Helen, their rivalries for her attention, folding planes of backstory into beautiful origami.
Strong is an exacting observer of families and their idiosyncrasies, in the mode of Anne Tyler and Jonathan Franzen. She nails the ennui of middle age: Josh has depleted his trust fund; Tess, despite her lawyerly mien, struggles with self-loathing; Kate views herself as dumpy, an afterthought to her older, handsome brothers. There’s a slightness to the plot — “Flight” occasionally feels padded out, with gratuitous, tacked-on scenes — but Strong milks the high moments, such as a quarrel that erupts during a game of cards.
The apple of discord is Helen’s house, now rented, set on an acre abutting a state nature reserve. Helen died suddenly, with no will, no stipulation about the property. Their finances compromised, Kate and Josh want to take possession, raise their kids amid the sunny weather and ocean breezes. As befits a climate activist, Henry advocates selling the property to the state so that it can be absorbed into the reserve. Martin also prefers a straight-up sale, with the money divvied equally. The conversations go south, fast.
There’s another catalyst for friction: the abrupt arrival of Alice’s client Quinn, a single mother in her early 20s, and her child, Maddie, a lit cigarette tossed into a powder keg. The subsequent conflagration is not a surprise, but it’s not formulaic, either; Strong keeps “Flight” in motion with twists of language and revelation.
The novel, then, limns the cumulative nature of grief, how it accretes, week by week, month by month, the Long Goodbye. Strong delicately teases out her characters’ emotional stasis, the end of one major phase and the inchoate beginnings of another. With Helen gone, their Florida sanctuary is gone, as well. Tess muses on the geography of mourning: “Maybe they were losing not just Helen but this whole state that she had come to love, even as they’d all disparaged it all these years: the flatness and the scrub trees; the lushness still for stretches; coco plums, hydrangeas, azaleas, allamandas, bougainvilleas — none of which Tess would have known to name before Helen was hers; the long blocks of concrete pastels on U.S. 1; the way the heat felt wet.”
“Flight” slips free of its tight narrative frame: More than just a domestic tale, it is a larger portrait of hearts and minds at war with the tedium of everydayness and the rote routines of relationships. As Tess notes of her own sisters, “The love among them was complicated, stunted, sometimes painful.” Grab a mug of egg nog, good readers, and dive in.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and contributing books editor at Oprah Daily. He lives in Brooklyn.
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