'May We Be Forgiven': A.M. Homes marries the heft of Victorian novels with sensibility of TV

A sweeping story of American family angst

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'May We Be Forgiven," A.M. Homes' sixth novel, explores what passes for domestic life in one family in the affluent suburbs of New York City. It might be described as a dark comedy of bad manners. Or, as a profoundly sad tale of alienation and loss, whose characters endure near-biblical tribulations, recounted through one-liners and absurd, often hilarious situations. I laughed, I cried, I cringed.

The Job-like narrator of this tale is Harold Silver, a middle-aged professor of Nixon studies at a second-rate college, slogging away at his 1,300-page book manuscript. When asked to describe his emotional life, Harry replies, honestly, "I don't have one." His younger brother George is a volatile, high-powered TV executive, and their sibling rivalry has only intensified in adulthood.

Arrested development? Actually, "Arrested Development," the television series, is what inescapably comes to mind: like the TV Bluth family, the Silvers regularly cross the fine line between eccentric and ridiculous; they experience a series of bizarre misadventures that change the course of their lives; and one member of the family valiantly tries to provide a moral anchor for the others.

By A.M. Homes
Viking ($26.95).

In fact, the sensibility of episodic TV -- especially situation comedies and reality shows -- infuses this book to a remarkable degree, beyond the many references to contemporary shows and the classic comedies of the mid-20th century. Perhaps this isn't surprising, given that Ms. Homes spent a couple of years writing for television ("The L Word"), has penned several series pilots, and apparently spent a lot of time watching TV growing up.

The show -- sorry, I mean the book -- opens with a brief scene of disaffection at Thanksgiving dinner at George's house, quickly moving on to the violent events that shatter two families. Suddenly responsible for his brother's two pre-teen children, Harry also chooses to take on a child orphaned as a result of George's actions. While he struggles to construct a new model of a family from the shards of the fractured old ones, he is also venturing in the world of emotions he has previously avoided.

The explicit scenes of Harry's sexual encounters with the "lunch dates" he makes through the Internet are simultaneously funny and grim. Arriving for one of these dates, he is met at the door by the woman's young children, who have decided to play their own version of the TV show "Predator," including handcuffing Harry. The episode ends with Harry counseling the neglected kids to try to get themselves adopted by a more caring family.

The theme of building a family by choice, through formal and casual adoptions, lies at the heart of this story. Ms. Homes was herself adopted, and her prior book, "The Mistress's Daughter" is a memoir of her difficult relationship with her biological parents, whom she met for the first time when she was 32. "May We Be Forgiven" further taps this rich emotional vein, as Harry surrounds himself with an assortment of people whose need for human connection matches his own.

Ms. Homes doesn't confine her cultural references to the world of TV. Another touchstone is Richard Nixon. Harry's fascination with Nixon, "his sweat, his paranoia, his emotional liability," leads to one of the story's more fanciful but satisfying threads. Harry is introduced to Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who asks him to edit a recently unearthed collection of short stories by her father. These stories certainly provide new insights into the 37th president.

The book is sprinkled with affectionate nods to favorite writers: Don DeLillo is spotted at the mall; Saul Bellow is evoked in the law firm of Henderson, Herzog and March; a story told by a dying man in a hospital is deemed "Salingeresque." But the literary spirit looming over this tale is John Cheever. Cheever's last-century WASPs are replaced by 21st-century Jews (opening the door for some ethnic-tinged humor), but the picture of suburban ennui and the mischief it engenders (those sad lunch dates with desperate housewives!) is familiar.

Yet, ultimately and unfortunately, this is a Victorian novel, offering rewards for perseverance in the face of obstacles. Overcrowded with minor characters, dense with subplots and, at nearly 500 pages with no chapter breaks, much too long, the book sags under its own weight. It's just too much to ask the characters, and the book's readers, to suffer the avalanche of terrible things that befall them.

"May We Be Forgiven" concludes at another Thanksgiving dinner, one year later, a device calculated to highlight Harry's redemption. But with this too-neat, Dickensian ending I half-expected the final prayer at dinner to be Tiny Tim's "God bless us, every one!" Maybe that's how the television adaptation will end.


Eileen Weiner of Shadyside works at Global Links, an international humanitarian aid organization. (eweiner100@gmail.com).


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