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By KRISTIN DAVIS
The title grabbed my attention:
"Family and Other Accidents."
The cover pictures 1 dozen almost-perfect eggs. But one is damaged. There's always one, cracked, liquid-yellow yolk exposed.
Now isn't that one of life's undeniable truths? How else would you explain the harrowing, magnetic nature of families, the rifts that tear them apart and the blood that binds them back together?
Shari Goldhagen's first novel, "Family and Other Accidents," tells that kind of story.
The intriguing cover delivers. The book is full of nice surprises, beginning with the first sentence of Chapter 1, which is called "Stealing Condoms from Joe Jr.'s Room":
One hundred and ninety-eight hours before Jenny Greenspan's birth control pills should kick in, Connor is in juvenile traffic court explaining how he followed a pickup truck through a yellow light and slammed into the side of a minivan.
Connor's dad died when he was 10; his mother died of an aneurysm a couple of years later. Connor's brother Jack, a decade older, moved back home, joined their father's law firm and took over the orphan's rearing.
Jack is too young to be a father to a teenager. He's not patient or strict or overtly loving enough. He's got his own life and his own problems, like an affair with a now-married ex-girlfriend and a turnstile at his bedroom door.
So Connor makes his own way, and often looks to a framed portrait of John F. Kennedy Jr. for guidance.
Jenny Greenspan is a fleeting character--we meet her in the beginning and that's that. But as Connor's birth control countdown suggests, she is important at least once.
A red-headed reporter named Mona halts Jack's flings. I'm never really sure what it is about Mona that has this effect. But she sticks around, and moves in shortly after Connor leaves for college.
She's the woman Jack doesn't want to commit to but can't live without.
Connor is certain of only one thing in life--family. He gets one by accident, while at Harvard for graduate school. Despite the Ivy League education, Connor has little professional ambition. Grad school was his way of putting off life a little longer.
There he meets Laine, a super-smart, beautiful blonde with a model's figure.
And that completes the introduction of Goldhagen's four main characters.
They stay with us for more than two decades.
They are flawed, complex, haunted and inherently good.
Like all the rest of us, they try. They fail. They win. They lose. They beat odds and get broadsided. They love and they hurt.
Connor wants to share his life with Jack, his only brother.
Mona wants a family, with Jack.
Jack is like one of those egg yolks, wrapped in thick, gooey white. He's not easily penetrated.
But there are moments of vulnerability. Big life-changing moments and subtler ones, too.
Years pass between some chapters. At first these gaps left me wanting more.
This was either a thoughtful way of telling only the monumental events of one family's story--these are the things we remember, after all--or an author's effective trick to get to the end quicker.
I'm leaning toward the first. Because only the most perceptive and gifted writer could recognize the weight of salmonella poisoning on a road trip, of a vandalized moving truck, of a song and a framed picture of the 35th president. The smallest events often turn out to be important.
And two or three pages into the next chapter (of the book and of the characters' lives), I felt satisfied again.
That's how I felt at the end of "Family and Other Accidents," too.
To reach KRISTIN DAVIS:
Family and Other
By Shari Goldhagen
(Doubleday, 262 pages, $23.95)