The family as we know it, some social scientists have warned, is in danger of becoming obsolete, but you would never know it from our fiction, John Irving's "The Hotel New Hampshire" being only the most publicized example of this year's novels about the ties that bind. "At Paradise Gate" is the second novel by Jane Smiley to concern itself with relations between the generations. In her first novel, the favorably received "Barn Blind," Smiley wrote of parents and adolescents; in her second, she confronts the problems that aging and death bring to the members of a family.
Told from the point of view of Anna Robinson, a midwestern wife and mother whose difficult and demanding 77-year-old husband, Ike, lies ill in an upstairs bedroom while the family gathers downstairs, "At Paradise Gate," though flawed, is a sensitive study of what it means to grow old and face death, and of the courage to see clearly what one's life has meant. The novel takes place during one weekend when the Robinsons' middle-aged daughters -- Helen, Claire and Susannah -- have come home to "help" their mother, though it feels like an invasion of privacy to Anna. Her daughters live more in the past than she does -- "Like their father, Anna Robinson's three daughters loved to remember" is the novel's opening sentence; but into their reminiscences comes the present -- 23-year-old Christine, Helen's daughter and Anna's only granddaughter, who, having decided to divorce her husband, has just discovered that she is pregnant.
The Robinson daughters are "well-intentioned," but they irritate their mother with their constant bickering and bossing, and each of them is too "full of opinions." Among other things, it is suggested that Anna should set up Ike's bed in the living room and get a nurse for him, when her sense of pride and privacy forbid doing either. Like many of us confronted with our parents, they revert to childhood roles -- Helen and Claire unceasingly bickering, dismissing Susannah, each of them unable to see the other or their parents as anything but Family: "In the kitchen Claire and Helen were opening and closing the refrigerator. Every one of them approached her refrigerator with a 10-year-old's belief in treasure boxes . . . Anna bit her lip. She had not stopped feeding these women for half a century. She was furious . . . Why did they treat her house, her larder, her furniture, her effects as if they owned them? And her life, too!"
Each of these women has lived through misfortune -- widowhood or divorce -- and their father's approaching death and Christine's news understandably serve to heighten their fears and their need to believe that their own lives were valid. Helen, bitter, twice widowed by alcoholic husbands, can only respond to Christine's wish for divorce that "Any man is better than none." They are not women one would much care to know -- though that is no test of fictional character -- but it is not difficult to see what motivates them. The problem is, however, that they remain ciphers, they do not by the end of the novel grow or change or go beyond themselves; and though the reader is told that they are different from each other, they remain indistinguishable in my mind.
Anna, on the other hand, and this is Anna's book, comes fully to life. For me, by far the most successful parts of the novel are the long stretches that take place in her mind, where she remembers her life, thinks about the physical difficulties of growing old -- stepping into the bathtub, for example -- recalls Ike's drunkenness and brutality and her own shortcomings, as well as the pleasure she has always taken in bringing order. Anna is unstintingly honest in her appraisal of her own anger and fear and helplessness; in contrast to her daughters, she recognizes that she may have sometimes been unfair, that she is capable of relishing the power she now has in the family. But what Anna ultimately comes to is a recognition forced on her by her daughters: They are gathered around for her, not Ike -- "You never let any one of us not need you, but now Daddy is going to escape." Later Anna thinks, "Helen would say, There was a bowl of happiness in this family, and you drank it all." And she imagines herself after Ike's death: "She would look around and ask herself what love was and if she had ever loved Ike, and her answer would be different every day. Perhaps they had never been suited, but yes, she loved him right now."
That the novel leaves Anna at this point seems fitting; it is a life lived out in all its ambiguity. Yet I was left dissatisfied at the end, dissatisfied because Smiley seems to be saying that this is enough without convincing me that it is. In the end, Christine decides to go back to her husband and have her baby, yet this decision happens offstage, so that we never see the reasons for it, never see it as anything but a capitulation to her mother's and her aunts' wishes. Since we never see Todd, the husband, we don't know what they might have together, or is it simply that "Any man is better than none?" Despite what Anna says about happiness and love, her own life seems in many respects impossibly grim, lacking in warmth and intimacy; nor do her daughters' lives, Helen's clothes and Claire's redecorating, seem reason to continue the pattern.
The word "nuclear" in the phrase "nuclear family" has always struck me as significant; if the nuclear family is in trouble, perhaps it is because it can sometimes be so deadly.