The title “Tigers in Red Weather” suggests a whole lot more teeth and claws than we actually see in Liza Klaussmann’s fine and subtle first novel. But the phrase comes from a Wallace Stevens poem, “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” that gets the tone of this psychological drama just right. Klaussmann’s characters are early risers who feel pretty well disillusioned long before 10 o’clock. She’s written an elegant playbook on passive aggression, a study of the desires and resentments that burn away souls behind teeth-clenched smiles.
I wouldn’t ordinarily recommend yet another dysfunctional family vacation novel, but 36-year-old Klaussmann has done something exceedingly clever here. The story concerns two lovely female cousins, Nick and Helena, who summer in an old family cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. We first meet them in 1945, just after World War II. Nick is looking forward to seeing her husband, a lieutenant junior grade she doesn’t know very well. Helena is planning her second marriage, this time to an aspiring Hollywood director.
The young women are devoted but find each other exasperating in different ways. Nick, with her “very polished exterior,” is controlling and superior; she speaks to everyone in “her ‘Don’t be a fool’ voice.” Helena, meanwhile, is needy and naive, with an enlarged capacity for suffering and rage. Neither woman can figure out why she’s so unhappy. Soon, they each have a child with their new husbands. Nick’s daughter is vivacious and competitive; Helena’s son is taciturn and creepy. As we watch their lives over the next 25 years, the tendrils of devotion and resentment grow more tightly entwined, particularly as Nick’s family prospers financially and Helena’s falters.
That long time span suggests a vast family saga, but this is not a novel heavy with incident. The opening chapter, in particular, is dangerously restrained. Skim the rest of the book for action scenes, and you’ll miss some crucial occasion of strangled hope or smothered bitterness. Klaussmann, who happens to be the great-great-great-granddaughter of Herman Melville, vaults through the years, alighting on quiet, fraught moments: the decision to take another tranquilizer, the search for one’s flirtatious spouse at a party, the perusal of adulterous love letters. And, oh yes, the discovery of a strangled body in the woods.
Indeed, the forces building up in this very tempered thriller are just as deadly as they are subtle. The psychological pressure beneath these shiny lives grows more unsettling with each passing chapter. Nick’s husband notes that “touching her was like touching an exposed wire.” She’s the kind of woman who thinks, “Everything was just fine” with such intensity that you expect her jaw to shatter. When poor Helena sees her husband’s private shrine to a dead starlet, you can almost see Alfred Hitchcock’s silhouette fall across the page. And every time Helena’s little boy announces that he’s going to check the mouse traps, I heard a teeny, tiny scream.
But what makes all this particularly fascinating is Klaussmann’s unusual structure. While narrating in the third-person, she presents the story in five sections, each concentrating on a different character: Nick, Helena, Nick’s daughter and so on. It’s not a matter of being led through the same event five times a la “Rashomon.” Nor does she use the even more demanding technique Mark Haddon employed in “The Red House,” his dysfunctional family novel, which switched perspectives every few paragraphs. Instead, Klaussmann has given each section its own time span; some overlap, some don’t. We experience many events in only one of these sections, but a few others recur across several sections, providing an unnerving kind of dimensionality. Even some lines of dialogue get repeated, suddenly infected with more ominous implications.
A large formal party, for instance, sounds exciting and romantic to Nick’s starry-eyed daughter, who has her sights set on a handsome young man. But for Nick’s husband, the evening is full of “all the tension of pretense and false understanding.” And for Helena’s son, the gathering promises sexual revelations of an entirely different order.
To be honest, the pulse of “Tigers in Red Weather” is too faint for a large audience, but this is a well-crafted novel that tracks the way familial disappointments can ferment into poisonous hatreds. Its alluring accumulation of bile reminded me of Maggie O’Farrell’s “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.” A former journalist who lives in London, Klaussmann is a master at unexpressed despair, which is always eventually expressed, of course. And watch out: There’s a single, shockingly violent moment in these pages that proves she’s not limited to the drama of seething with a smile.
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
TIGERS IN RED WEATHER
By Liza Klaussmann
Little, Brown. 368 pp. $25.99