It’s a Family Affair

‘All This Could Be Yours,’ Another Excellent Social Novel from Jami Attenberg

Victor is a bad man. He’s a compulsive philanderer, a violent bully, and a law-breaker.

He’s also in a coma, and so Jami Attenberg’s magnetic new novel All This Could Be Yours is less about Victor than the people who surround him. They all harbor secrets.

His wife Barbra remembers the charismatic suitor who swept her off her feet, even though he choked and threatened her, too. “I knew what I was getting,” she thinks, walking endless loops around the hospital in New Orleans.

Their daughter Alex, now divorced and with a pre-teen daughter of her own, wants Barbra to spill what really went on in her parents’ marriage. Alex even mimes forgiveness at her comatose father’s bedside in an effort to coerce the truth out of her mother.

“What good would it do you, Alex, to learn all of your father’s flaws, his crimes, his mistakes?” Attenberg writers as the Barbra, circling around the death bed. “What would be the point of it? To know anyone’s weaknesses had never helped Barbra in any way. To know their strengths, what they had to offer her, how they could surround her with things she desired, how they could shield her from the world–those were the things worth knowing about a person.”

Alex’s brother Gary should be there, too, but he’s AWOL. Gary’s wife Twyla is there instead, romper-clad, sunscreen-scented and clutching her Bible. “Twyla waved it ruefully. ‘Every little bit helps,’ she said.”

Attenberg unfurls the depths of the Tuchman family with precision.  It’s a skill she’s showcased before, particularly in her 2012 breakthrough The Middlesteins, which focused on a family splintering under the weight of its matriarch’s preoccupation with food. The Middlesteins landed Attenberg on the New York Times bestseller list and won her nominations for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, among other laurels.

Jami Attenberg

She pivoted a bit in Saint Mazie, a novel based on the life of a New York woman who sold movie tickets by day and helped street dwellers by night. And in 2017’s All Grown Up, she pivoted again, focusing on a defiantly single and childless New York woman who was definitely no saint.

Yet though their themes differ, throughout all of her novels, Attenberg has excelled at mapping people. She continues to care deeply about the shifting nature of truth, rotating narrators in All This Could Be Yours so that the reader doesn’t fully grasp what’s happened until the end.

At the Texas Book Festival last month, Attenberg copped to being fascinated with family secrets– “Not mine,” she quipped– and the relationships mandated by familial bonds. Barbra vows to quietly absorb Victor’s physical blows, as long as he doesn’t lash out at their children. Ye this freights Alex and Gary with the emotional weight of not just their father’s bad behavior, but also their mother’s stoic demeanor: “Clarity of thought was dangerous in their home.”

Attenberg doesn’t write The Tuchmans for laughs, though she accents the fault lines with acerbic wit. Barbra’s obsession with her daily steps is a modern version of the “pretty and thin” mantra she grew up with. “Ten thousand was just how her mother knew her heart was still beating,” Alex thinks. “Fifteen thousand was when she began to feel truly alive. Once, her mother phoned her and burst out excitedly, ‘Thirty-two thousand steps today!’ and Alex had no choice but to congratulate her.”

Attenberg grants nearly everyone who comes into contact with this family their own spotlight, even if just for a few incisive lines: the streetcar driver who waits for a sweaty, sunburned Alex; the CVS cashier who rings up Twyla’s makeup binge; the old man using a wheelchair near Victor’s hospital room.

The best of these centers on Sharon– happily unmarried, a doctor who spent years in D.C. and came back to her hometown after the storm. She is tangentially connected to the Tuchman family, but Attenberg brilliantly sketches both Sharon and New Orleans over just a few pages, exploring the woman’s steadfast independence as well as the distinctive customs that mark life in that city: “There had been a small second line for her father when he passed. All the neighborhood ladies had been there. Dressed. The respect Sharon felt that day for her father made her shiver.”

There’s no second line awaiting Victor, but no matter. Attenberg gives us a rich portrait of a family linked by blood, yet irrevocably divided by one man’s misdeeds.

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 22, 2019) 

Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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