In Benjamin Markovits' "A Weekend in New York," a family’s hopes, fears, loose ends and fractures emerge during a few days in Manhattan.
Paul Essinger’s family gathers in New York to see him play in the U.S. Open. Parents Bill and Liesel fly in from Austin, where they have been teaching for some 40 years; she has recently published a memoir. Their oldest, Nathan, a tenured Harvard professor, comes with his two children. Paul’s older sister, Susie, an adjunct teacher, brings one of her two kids (the other’s sick) from Hartford, Connecticut. Jean, the baby and unmarried, flies in from London, where she works on TV documentaries. Completing the accomplished tribe are Paul’s partner, Dana, a former model who feels pressured by the visit’s “atmospheric intimacy,” and their son. (Two spouses can’t join the group this year.) Despite many markers of individual success, there’s a thread of dissatisfaction running through these 72 hours. Bill long ago chose family over career advancement. Susie did as well and is diffident about being pregnant again. Paul is unlikely to get past the Open’s second round; he’s mulling retirement. Nathan sees his peers rising into the realms of real power outside academia. Jean isn’t sure she can handle the guilt of wrecking a family in her affair with a married man. Markovits offers little plot but well-crafted scenes that explore the chaos and affection, seams and separateness of large family gatherings — the disjointed conversations are especially fine. But his snapshots of Manhattan are too tidy, his characters' problems sometimes rarefied, such as choosing a restaurant or one’s words with the help. His novel recalls more than a few well-made yet not always satisfying Woody Allen films.
The writing and insight go far in making this a good book, but a less-privileged and more-challenging cast might have made it a better one.
(Markovits will speak in conversation with Elizabeth McCracken and sign copies of his book at 6 p.m. Saturday at BookPeople, 603 North Lamar Blvd.)
Storytelling as healing
A yoga retreat on a mountain in China signals a turning point for an expatriate American painter in Susan Conley's "Elsey Come Home."
"About a year ago my husband handed me a brochure for a retreat in a nearby mountain village. We were standing in our Beijing kitchen while the girls played make-believe dog at our feet. The brochure was more like a handmade pamphlet — four pieces of white computer paper folded in the middle and stapled three times along the crease." Elsey's husband, Lukas, a Danish-born musician who plays electronic dance music in clubs, knows his wife desperately needs something to get her back on track and can only hope that this retreat will be it. Elsey's not so sure, but she goes anyway, leaving her beloved daughters with their dad and taking along a full cargo of emotional baggage. The conflict between parenting and painting has put an end to what was an art career on the rise and has also led to a dependence on alcohol that is more serious than she has been willing to admit. At the retreat she will learn plank and forward fold, observe a day of silence, and participate in the dreaded Talking Circle, which Elsey sees as a good premise for a skit on Saturday Night Live. Joining her on the mountain is a cast of Chinese nationals and foreigners, all there in hopes of changing their lives. Most significant among them is Mei, half of an internationally famous artist couple, for whom the retreat is an attempt to break from her difficult husband; she becomes something like a friend. As Elsey sorts through the memories of the yoga retreat and the year following, as well as older hurts and losses, Conley's slim novel illustrates the power of storytelling as a process for healing.
What entices and endures here is the voice: dreamy, meditative, hypnotic and very real.