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Love and Like

Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

Martha McPhee’s previous novel, “Bright Angel Time,” thrust us back into the countercultural promise and chaos of the 1970s. Narrated by 8-year-old Kate Cooper, it described the merger of two broken families in a van driven cross-country by her mother Eve’s new boyfriend, a Texas-born ex-Jesuit and gestalt therapist named Anton Furey. The three Cooper girls and the five Furey kids--two boys and three girls--were along for the ride, bound for nobody knew where.

In “Gorgeous Lies,” McPhee fast-forwards to the present. Anton is dying of pancreatic cancer at Chardin, the hilltop New Jersey farm he dreamed would represent French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point, a “perfect meeting place of the human and the divine.” His scattered offspring converge to nurse him and to quarrel among themselves. They include Alice, his and Eve’s “uniting child,” who takes on the role of peacemaker.

In times like the ‘70s, when traditional certainties fade, it’s harder than ever to tell a charismatic, visionary leader from a charlatan, especially when they are the same person. A quarter-century later, Anton’s children, his wife, his ex-wife, his wife’s ex-husband, his mother-in-law, his current mistress, the architect who built Chardin, the enlightenment-seekers who received therapy from Anton and the local businesspeople to whom he chronically owed money are still unsure of which he was.

All agree on one thing: Anton was a charmer. His “beautiful, wicked grin,” his assurances that no matter how bad a situation looked, “it’ll be all right,” his way of calling everyone “Babe,” his idealism and sense of fun all managed to disarm skeptics and seduce even the marginally willing. And if Chardin, once a magnet for reporters and TV crews, didn’t change the world, if Anton never got around to writing his revolutionary book on human sexuality, did this mean he was a failure? That the trip wasn’t worth taking?

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The story McPhee gives us this time--using multiple points of view, so that it’s often hard to tell the children apart--avoids the extremes of hippie nostalgia and conservative revisionism and doesn’t provide any simple answers.

Her prose captures the Chardin mood: Elegant and airy, it seems to levitate even the grubbiest details--theft and drug addiction and plumbing problems, Anton’s tyrannical side and the querulous “impostor” who takes over his mind as the pain of illness racks him and his lapsed Catholicism rekindles as a fear of hell.

Anton’s failure, McPhee shows in the novel’s flashbacks, is always relative. He fails upward. After washing out of a Jesuit seminary because of a homosexual affair, he marries the heiress to a Texas oil fortune. After buying Chardin with her money, he meets Eve and tries, with their blended tribe, to respond to California guru George Leonard’s 1970 call for American families to be “bigger, less well-defined.” The Furey-Cooper children don’t evolve into higher beings, but neither do they crash and burn. They turn out about the same as other bright kids of their economic class, except that they have more adventures--a mixed blessing, according to one of Anton’s daughters:

“We made movies all the time, taking turns on who’d be the star

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This is a priceless gift and a crime, McPhee shows us. For with Anton dying, all these people, even those who dislike him, are faced with the loss of their lives’ meaning. They still want Anton’s love, though he’s past being able to give it. They want the trip to continue because they don’t know how to get out of the van, even when it stops.


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