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Unfinished family business

Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

CONSIDER secrets. Keeping them. Managing them. Sensing their presence as a child. Secrets give us our first experience of creating stories, if only to fill in the gaps, to make up an identity for ourselves that feels complete. Secrets are the great taproot of fiction, an absence of information that leads to a startling discovery: that we can use our imaginations to create the information we need to build the rickety scaffolding of our lives.

Eliza Minot’s second novel, “The Brambles,” builds on a secret -- information kept from three children by their parents. We all know the information is hidden somewhere, but Minot keeps her secret for a good two-thirds of the book. You can guess the effect because you were once a child and secrets were kept from you. There’s a sense of precariousness, a feeling that you do not have all the information you need to decide if the world of Minot’s novel is safe or dangerous.

“The Brambles” tells the story of the Bramble family, beginning with Florence, the matriarch, a retired model and dancer, who is dead (but for one brief appearance) when the narrative begins. She has been killed in a plane crash at 62, leaving a husband, Arthur, 11 years her senior, and three children: Edie, 27, Margaret, 31 and Max, 29.

The dead mother, of course, is a staple not just in Minot’s fiction (her first novel, “The Tiny One,” revolved around such a figure); her older sister Susan introduced the archetype in her 1986 debut, “Monkeys,” and her brother George adopted it for “The Blue Bowl.” Still, to read these novels as merely autobiographical -- the Minots’ mother died, prematurely, in 1977 -- is too reductive. Rather, what Minot and her siblings share is a sense of the way family binds us, for good or ill. How does the same experience reverberate differently for different people? How do we listen for clues and inconsistencies? These are the questions Minot wants us to consider, as she looks beneath the surface of this domestic world.

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It is Margaret whose sensibility directs the course of “The Brambles.” She is the furthest along in life: a mother, with three children and a solid marriage. Edie, by contrast, is at sixes and sevens -- bulimic, unable to sustain either a relationship or a job. Max is somewhere in the middle; when we first meet him, he is sitting on the park bench where he has spent every day for the last few weeks, unable to tell his wife, Chloe, and their young son, Rex, that he is out of work. Initially, he is reminiscent of Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” while his siblings, with their easy banter, are not unlike J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey Glass.

Margaret is smack in the middle of life, with all the distractions facing a mother of young kids. Minot, to her credit, does not spare us the details. Even in some of the novel’s most critical moments, we hear the voice of a child needing attention. “All in a single day,” thinks Margaret, “she’d never been so frustrated, so besotted, so bored, so pleased, so proud, or so annoyed.” Later, she observes that “her life is simply made up of snippets, a connect-the-dots of moments of clarity, of instants, big and small, where life softly explodes in her head, which remain with her either because she simply decided to remember them for no reason at all or because it was something that was seared into her consciousness as if with a branding iron.”

It takes the first third of the novel for Minot to weave her characters together, primarily through dialogue. It’s a tricky way to set up a story because, as everyone knows, we are not who we say we are, and we only rarely say what we mean, even to those closest to us. But when a writer pulls it off, as Minot does, the result is rewarding. We learn not just who these characters are, but who they think they are and how they would like other people to perceive them.

Minot also entwines the family on a deeper level; that subterranean layer where relations awake, cinematically in the middle of the night, when a sibling has died or a child has been hit by an oncoming truck on a faraway freeway. It’s that elusive question of connection, although her task is a bit easier because with the Bramble family there is, quite simply, plenty of love to go around. By mid-novel, when Margaret’s husband, Brian, picks up his father-in-law, who has come to live out his days with his family, a reader feels that vast sense of warmth, a kind of off-gassing from strong, well-built and carefully nurtured relationships.

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Then, about two-thirds of the way through “The Brambles” (I point out these milestones because the novel is so carefully constructed), the narrative kicks into second gear. Margaret gets rear-ended on her way to a doctor’s appointment with the children and begins to see the ethereal woman who hit her hovering around her house. There she is, in the backyard, going through the garbage, running off when Margaret or Brian calls out to her. It’s not clear, all of a sudden, whether Margaret has become unglued. Max is also slipping; his wife, who still doesn’t know that he has lost his job, suspects he is having an affair. Edie too shows signs of losing it -- she goes to Maine to visit her dead mother’s closest friend, who reveals a truth about the family that Edie has suspected all along.

This is the point at which we remember that no family exists in a vacuum, that, even as the world adds its pressures and distractions, our ancestors have handed on, genetically and behaviorally, their own coping mechanisms. These run the gamut from denial and stubborn silence to acting out and even mental breakdown.

It must be said -- though it is a little beside the point -- that the novel’s ending, a sort of whiz-bang blowup, is less than believable, or maybe just jarringly pat after Minot has spent so much of the book revealing so deftly all the odds and ends and unfinished business that resemble most of our lives. The Brambles are, above all, human, and not all of them are equally equipped to lead lives of quiet dignity. Some, like Edie, are needier than others; some, like Max, less emotionally available; and others, like Margaret, dear Margaret, live life as fully as possible while watching it, at the same time, from a very great distance.


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