Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty
Author: Ramona Ausubel
Published: June 2016 | Riverhead Books
Length: 320 pages
Ramona Ausubel has recently become one of my favorite fiction authors. Her newest characters don’t go to church or discuss God very often, and if you are looking for a cleaned up, PG version of reality, you won’t find it. Her characters do devastating things to each other: they have affairs, take revenge, and even abandon their children. But Ausubel’s vision of a good life is far from nihilistic. She affirms the worth of living, despite weakness and age. She values commitment and family. She upholds marital love as deeper than passion, and weighs the impact generations bequeath on one another. Her characters hardly arrive through the mess they make unscathed; Ausubel acknowledges consequences. Yet, through failure, she reveals the mysterious grace that sometimes a person’s most devastating choices are also their means to redemption.
Beginning with all the glitz of Gatsby, the setting of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty couldn’t be more surprising. We are introduced to a young couple in their 20s, Fern and Edgar, who, with their three children, enjoy the life of the rich while at the same time rebelling against it. Having inherited wealth from both sides of the family, they romanticize visions of laboring for every penny and linking arms with the lower classes who seem more genuine, more full of substance. But when their wealth completely and suddenly disappears, Edgar and Fern catapult away from each other. Fern wants Edgar to take over his father’s business, be a man, and make them an income. Edgar revolts against Fern pushing him into the shackles of a life he does not want, and runs head-long into his first affair.
In rage, and gasping for escape, both husband and wife set out on their own trips away from each other, paired with the temporary salves of other lovers. With his new mistress, Edgar sails his father’s boat to Bermuda, embracing the illusion that he can live in a single, perfect moment, forgetting past and future. Fern hitches a ride with a stranger reminiscent of her lost brother, and road trips to California, seeking to gain a sense of personhood without relation to her husband or children. Fern and Edgar intend to make each other pay for how they’ve hurt one another, willing to risk their marriage to force their own image of a happy life. Neither parent knows the other has gone, and the children are left alone. As wrongly motivated as their respective journeys are, these turn out to be pathways to redemption.
Edgar’s recovery centers around a single moment of coming face to face with his frailty. His illusion of escape is shattered when he loses his glasses and is blind without them. Now, the last person Edgar wants beside him is a lover with whom he has no past and knows he will have no future. He longs for the woman who has seen him at his worst and his best, before whom there is no pretense.
This theme of the value of weakness appears again and again. The family dog is getting decrepit and Fern wonders when to put him down. Fern’s mother left a devastating legacy by ending her life in her prime to escape aging. The girl of the family, Cricket, has illusions of herself as mature and capable, but it is only when she allows herself to be comforted as a child that she finds her right place.
Fern’s transformation is less a single moment of revelation than a gradual confrontation with herself. The seeming ghost of her dead brother, about whom she has so many regrets, haunts the seat beside her. Her destination—California–happens to be so very close to the childhood home in which her mother ended her life. Generational values of a life measured by social acceptance accost her consciousness in all their ugly form. Through it all, memories of the husband she has built a life with, loved, and cannot replace combine with an ever-deepening ache for the children she has left behind. When, after a week, a phone call finally reveals that the children have been fending for themselves, Fern rushes homeward.
Edgar and Fern return, softened, back into each other’s lives, though the repercussions of infidelity, abandonment, and bitter words will undoubtedly scar. Realizing the depth of their wounds has only just begun. Nonetheless, they have been rescued to a healing they had yet to know. Before the road they imagined existence and meaning might be found in a way of life they had not attained, with a different heritage and fulfilled dreams. Now, Fern and Edgar find they are more whole not in isolation, but in the history and struggles of their togetherness. Ironically, completeness emerges through giving of oneself, through loving, through allowing oneself to be defined in terms of another: a wife, a husband, a mother, a son, a neighbor, a friend.
In language expertly crafted from cover to cover, this emotional and gripping novel explodes with searing heartache and shocking joy. Above all, it affirms the worth and beauty of that sacred word: family.
Digital ARC courtesy of Riverhead Books