"Ember Days" is 400 pages of well-drawn characters who engage our attention from page one and alternately charm, annoy, worry and entertain us. Scene after scene reminds us of people we've all known: Cranky old women who wear ratty sweaters while storing their good ones in musty bedrooms against a day important enough to dress up; overindulged sons who grow up to be boozy grievance collectors (flabby shadows of their mothers' dreams); lovable fathers out drinking because they can't face wives exhausted with duty and drained of girlishness; prim teen-agers shocked at the concept of parents lusting for each other.
It's a family novel -- a saga, the publisher calls it, but that's misleading. There's not so much a sense of time marching on, of the relentless course of family destiny, as there is a sense of the past intruding on the present.
Basically, this is Helen's story, and Helen is very much a woman of this time and place: a third-generation Irish Catholic born during the Depression, raised in a Brooklyn railroad flat, married young to a rookie fireman, the mother of four at 25, restless at 30 and desperate to break free from the prison of piety, self-denial and duty to family that turned her grandmother into a bitter, self-pitying crone and is now threatening to destroy her mother.
We've had plenty of novels lately about middle-class mothers turning in their dish towels for self-realization and a college degree, but Margaret Wander Bonanno is one of the few writers I've read recently who convey so realistic and sympathetic a portrait of family life in a working-class house filled with lace doilies, holy pictures, gauze curtains and mousetraps.
Helen herself is not the most interesting character in the novel, but one reads about her with a sense of recognition. Frustrated as a teen-ager in her desire to go to college, because any extra money the family had was earmarked for educating her slob of a brother, she falls naturally into the cycle of marriage, babies and Sunday mass. Belatedly she escapes the cycle -- aided by her tough-but-tender husband, an uneducated man totally unthreatened by the prospect of having a wife smarter than he is, if it will make her happy (we've seen his type in a lot of movies lately). She goes back to college, becomes an excellent teacher, and after a few years accepts with good humor the "accident" of a midlife baby -- tricked into pregnancy by a moralistic daughter who sabotages her birth control pills in the belief that that "dirty business" is strictly for babymaking.
Helen is familiar; we're happy for her, we're pleased with what she represents. She's real, and to some extent she's all of us -- but enough already. It's the women who precede her, the ones who start out with high romantic hopes, who tell their beads and faithfully observe the Church's ember days" with fasting and prayer, who do what they are taught is right and who end their lives frustrated, resentful and crnky, who supply the novel -- particularly the first half of it -- with so much of its energy and charm.
The book opens with a wake for Helen's "withered old harridan" of a grandmother, whose death (long predicted by herself) is a great relief to almost everyone. Sour and brittle in old age, the grandmother has been a pain in the neck to the whole family -- the resident expert in "don'ts" (don't let the baby crawl on the floor, don't leave the window open). She is a particular burden to her daughter, yet when she dies her daughter, Helen's mother, begins to take on some of her qualities -- always looking for the fly in the ointment, the gesture that will lead to a permanent fall from grace. The mother's hold on the daughters extends even past the grave, and one effect of this is to enhance the role of the men who marry into the family by giving them an automatic role as the good guys in the house.
The men born into the family are weak or alienated: one of Helen's brothers is an alcoholic, the other a priest; even her adopted cousin is homosexual (which causes a family feud). The men who marry into the family, on the other hand, are strong, appealing, no-nonsense. They provide the rest of the Irish charm that keeps the novel light. In fact, through them the author provides us with more than a touch of blarney. Sections of flashback depicting life back in coastal Newfoundland where the family started out supply some of the most captivating scenes in the novel, and a good third of the book is reminiscent of nothing so much as old Barry Fitzgerald movies.
Broadly, "Ember Days" shows the gradual liberation of the women in one Irish Catholic family -- liberation from the joyless and inflexible structures of duty to family and church. This provides the novel with its fame, but one reads Margaret Wander Bonanno not so much for the messages as for the casting. Both here and in her fine first novel, "A Certain Slant of Light" (1979), she provides several hours of first-class people watching, showing a particular talent for bringing feisty characters to life.