‘Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty’ is a charming summer tale of wealth and its loss
Wealthy characters, from Gatsby to Mr. Darcy to Miss Havisham, were once a fiction staple. In contemporary novels, however, characters with more moderate incomes tend to rule: Think of the striving immigrant blogger in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” or Karen Russell’s down-on-its-luck alligator-wrestling family in “Swamplandia!” It’s not easy to make the travails of one-percenters sympathetic to the Costco-shopping rest of us, but if there’s a novelist up to the task of charming a reader into submission, it’s Ramona Ausubel, who writes heartfelt, quirky fiction with winsome prose.
As Ausubel’s delightful second novel, “Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty,” opens, it’s summertime in 1976 and the living is easy for Fern and Edgar Keating, who are vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard with their three temporarily unbridled children: “For them the whole point of life was to be wet and dry eight times a day and never clean.” But then the living’s always been easy for the Keatings — Edgar’s father built a steel fortune in Chicago, and Fern’s family comes from old money. Fern’s wealth sustained them through their twenties while she raised the kids and Edgar worked on a novel instead of joining his father’s business as his dad fervently wishes.
Then, poof, the money’s gone. Fern’s parents die a few weeks before the novel opens, and the family lawyer calls to tell her that the party’s over. “The long-ago earning of that money — slaves, cotton, rum — and the spending of it, were done,” Ausubel writes. “The money had lived its own life, like a relative.”
In other tales in which characters learn they will lose their source of income — “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Pride and Prejudice,” HBO’s “Girls” — newfound pennilessness drives the protagonists to make a go of it, searching for employment, plotting to make a good match or delving into new worlds in the hope of finding a foothold. But Ausubel has never been one to rely on the expected when it comes to plot (in her story “Chest of Drawers,” a father-to-be sprouts drawers in his chest out of sympathy with his pregnant wife’s changing body). On hearing the news that they’re broke, Fern and Edgar freak.
Fern calls Edgar’s mother with the bad news and suggests that Edgar join the family steel company. The problem is that Edgar’s novel, recently accepted for publication, is “about the son of a steel baron who walks away from his father’s money.” Joining Keating Steel will mean cancelling the book’s publication. Edgar feels attacked when Fern and his parents suggest he go to work, and stalks off to a party where he meets an alluring, desperate housewife, Glory, who initiates an affair.
Fern is so livid about Edgar’s betrayal and duty-shirking — “she had not made this family alone” — that when she’s back home in Cambridge and is invited to serve as the bride at a false wedding staged to cheer Alzheimer’s patients, she spends their remaining money on a wedding dress.
That’s not all. The fake groom — an actual giant — suggests she take off on a cross-country road trip with him and Fern agrees, leaving a note and hitting the road while the kids are at school. Ausubel, like skilled fabulist Carson McCullers before her, somehow makes the introduction of a giant seem natural.
Cricket, her 9-year-old daughter, comes home from school to find she’s been left alone with her 6-year-old twin brothers. Meanwhile, Edgar is sailing to Bermuda with Glory, neither parent aware of the other’s absence. The bewildered kids decide not to alert any authorities about their unwatched state and look after themselves, erecting a teepee in the backyard and eating canned beans and ice cream. Dependable Cricket leads the boys to school each morning, then streaks them with war paint in the afternoons.
Ausubel alternates chapters about the kids’ adventures and the parents’ quixotic journeys with those that comb back through Fern and Edgar’s childhoods, courtship, and marriage. These flashbacks elucidate the peculiar beliefs of the rich: There “were such things as lower-class flowers (geraniums, chrysanthemums, poinsettias) and upper-class flowers (rhododendrons, tiger lilies, amaryllis, columbine, clematis and roses, though never red ones),” and as Fern’s mother comments, “The wrong white can ruin a room.”
Fern and Edgar disdain their family money. Edgar studied Marxism and takes Fern to live among working-class people in a Southern coal town when they’re first married. But this chafing against wealth doesn’t prevent them from benefiting from it, with every purchase subsidized and a father’s phone call keeping Edgar from shipping out to Vietnam.
We may harbor visions of gleeful Scrooge McDuck-style dives into vaults of gold bullion should grand fortune ever strike, but nobody in the Keatings’ privileged world seems to be having much fun. “Enjoyment was not the work of the upper class,” Ausubel writes. “To prove that they were worthy of their wealth, they had all silently agreed to remain in the upper margins of unhappiness. … No one deserved fortune and joy both.”
Fern and Edgar may be destined for neither, with Edgar avoiding choosing a profession and Fern never finishing college. It’s as though being born with too much money forces them to remain children, without the good parts of being a kid — the adventurousness and the freedom — only the bad: fear, restriction, dependence and entitlement.
My writing teacher, Lucia Berlin, used to admire how Anton Chekhov would treat a princess and a maid with the same lack of judgment in his writing. Berlin thought it was the princess that more writers tended to flub, chastising her instead of conveying her humanity. Ausubel succeeds on this score — she does not scorn her princes and princesses. The princesses, in fact, fare best: Fern and Cricket especially endear through their apt, universal observations on motherhood and childhood.
Through their flight from responsibility and marriage, Fern and Edgar accidentally bestow upon their children a freedom from rules that they, as prized heirs, never enjoyed growing up. The novel leaves the future of the Keating family uncertain, but the kids, at least, seem destined to be all right. Their unparented extension of summer leaves them sturdy and self-sufficient, whatever the contents of their bank account may be.
Jenny Shank’s novel, “The Ringer,” won the High Plains Book Award. She is a faculty member of the Mile High MFA program at Regis University.
By Ramona Ausubel
Riverhead: 320 pages: $27
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