Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, October 15, 2006
THE GHOST AT THE TABLE
By Suzanne Berne
Shannon Ravenel/Algonquin. 292 pp. $23.95
Weary of Mrs. Smith's pumpkin pie? The predictability of grandma's cranberry sauce? The bovine migration of guests toward the TV while you dry dishes in the kitchen?
Spice up Thanksgiving this year! No, Martha, I'm not talking nutmeg. Here's a chance to fight the soporific effect of turkey with some intellectual stimuli: Three fine writers are publishing novels this fall about family and friends gathering for Thanksgiving. That coincidence provides an unusual opportunity to reflect on the holiday and -- if your guests are game -- add a book-club component to your traditional get-together.
The most anticipated of these novels is Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land , the final volume of his Frank Bascombe trilogy, which includes The Sportswriter (1985) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day (1995). Then there's Thanksgiving Night , by Richard Bausch, whose 10th novel is set in the small Virginia valley that has been the setting for much of his fiction over the years. And finally, there's The Ghost at the Table , by Suzanne Berne, who won the Orange Prize in 1997 for her Washington-based novel A Crime in the Neighborhood . We'll review Ford's and Bausch's books as they appear over the next few weeks, but our first course today is Berne's story about a Thanksgiving gathering of the Fiske family in Concord, Mass.
There could be no better setting for a novel about the anxieties of Thanksgiving than this wealthy town outside of Boston, where history is immaculately and expensively preserved. The Ghost at the Table is very much a novel about the way we shape and sanctify our memories and then allow those memories to control us. The narrator, Cynthia, writes young-adult novels for a series called "Sisters of History, fictionalized accounts of famous women 'as told' by one of their sisters . . . cheerfully earnest feminist stories, emphasizing 'the strong bonds between sisters' and illustrating the message that the most important things in life are human relationships." The ironic tone of that description is a good indication of Cynthia's attitude toward life in general -- and particularly toward her sister's plea that she come home to Concord for Thanksgiving.
Cynthia has spent her entire adult life trying to distance herself from an unhappy childhood. Her mother was an invalid who died when Cynthia was 13; her father was a brusque, unaffectionate man who quickly remarried and sent his girls off to boarding school. But now her sister, Frances, insists that it's time to let bygones be bygones. Their father is 82, he's had a debilitating stroke, and his wife has filed for divorce. "Please, Cynnie," her sister pleads. "It's the first time in forever that we could all be together." Under the condition that they "not get into a lot of old stuff" -- ha! -- Cynthia agrees to fly back east for Thanksgiving. If nothing else, she can do some research in Hartford, Conn., for a novel she's writing about Mark Twain's daughters.
What follows is a witty, moving and psychologically astute story about siblings and the disparate ways they remember common experiences from childhood. Cynthia arrives to find that she's been tricked by her sister into playing the leading role in a heartwarming holiday reconciliation with their father. But she wants no part of this, and their father has been reduced by illness to a grumpy sphinx. Meanwhile, all the other guests -- nieces, husbands, roommates, office colleagues and a tutor -- have their own unattainable visions of the perfect holiday to enforce on the group. Sound familiar? Pass the gravy, please.
One of the special pleasures of this Thanksgiving story is the way Berne draws parallels between Cynthia's family and Twain's family. Both feature three sisters, an invalid mother and a dynamic, moody patriarch. An antique organ, rumored to have come from Twain's house, features in the novel's climax and provides a marvelous example of the way families create their own legends. Throughout the holiday, Frances keeps urging Cynthia to tell them charming anecdotes she's discovered about Twain's daughters in the course of her research, but Cynthia chafes beneath the tyranny of Frances's nostalgia and stubbornly dwells only on the grim details: the manic depression, the epilepsy, the early deaths.
There's almost no forward motion to the novel's plot, but somehow this proxy battle between Cynthia and Frances over their childhood -- an effort by each sister to enforce her own version of the past and dismiss the other's memories as irrelevant or skewed -- is enough to make The Ghost at the Table wholly engaging, the perfect spark for launching a rich conversation around your own table once the dishes have been cleared.
Cynthia can be a bitter narrator, and Frances's sepia-toned desire for "a regular old-fashioned family holiday" makes her an easy target, but Berne is not a bitter author, and forgiveness finally comes to these people in the most natural and believable ways. Despite some good shots at the hysteria that infects most of us around the fourth Thursday of November, this is a surprisingly tender story that celebrates the infinite frustrations and joys of these crazy people we're yoked to forever. All in all, something to add to your list of things to be grateful for. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.