by Jessica Anya Blau
All families have their peculiarities, and every family has its stories that ride the line between hilarity and embarrassment. Pain, frustration and idiosyncrasies become fodder for the legend. Jessica Anya Blau took her own family experience and used it as direct inspiration for her novel, Drinking Closer to Home.
Adult siblings Anna, Portia and Emery Stein have returned to California to see their parents, their mother laid up in the hospital after a heart attack. Her prognosis remains uncertain in the initial days, and they’ve paused their lives in order to all be together. While Portia is still reeling from her husband’s affair and their subsequent divorce, and Anna is stress-eating licorice and relieved to have a break from being a parent, Emery wonders at what time he and boyfriend Alejandro should break their news. They’re going to have a baby via surrogate — except they need one of the sister’s eggs. As they sit with their father in their mother’s hospital room, the narrative shifts back to different points in their childhood.
However, Drinking Closer to Home is no heartwarming, group hug-type family saga. In fact, the Steins would probably laugh at the word “saga” itself. Parents Louise and Buzzy might scoff to the effect of, Aren’t you being a little over dramatic about this? Jesus Christ, it’s just our life.
When Emery was a baby, Louise decides she’s given up being a housewife and delegates all the cooking and cleaning to her daughters. Instead, she smokes joints and creates art in her backyard studio. Anna’s reaction is to compulsive clean and organize her own things, all while judging everyone else’s habits. Portia relishes the chance to mother her little brother, but doesn’t care if he has clean sheets or plays in mud. Their father remains impartial, happy (or oblivious) enough to let everyone do their own thing. And though at times this arrangement strains their relationship, there are no feuds that carry on into the present. They rally around each other’s issues, even if they appear insensitive while doing so.
Moments later, the nurse returns and tells the family that the social worker did not approve of their behavior.
“She thought you were an uncaring family,” the nurse reports.
Louise opens her eyes, suddenly awake, and laughs in a big, open-mouthed way. It is the most vociferous she has been all day.
Buzzy is insulted. “I don’t understand,” he says. “What are we doing wrong? What do other people do?”
“Most people sit quietly in the room,” the nurse says. “I told her you weren’t like most people.”
“She probably didn’t like us because you talk too fast,” Portia says to Anna. The teachers in elementary school wanted Anna to go to speech therapy because she talked too fast. She never went, of course, as Louise and Buzzy only snickered at the suggestion. She still speaks quickly and has an acute intolerance for slow talkers.
“Maybe she’s upset that we’re eating Mom’s lunch,” Emery says.
“Well, she’s not eating!” Buzzy says. “Why shouldn’t we eat it?”
The nurse finishes writing on Louise’s chart, smiles pointedly at the family, and leaves. Anna wonders if the nurse hates them, then she decides fuck it, who cares if the nurse hates them. They don’t need her love. They have each other.
While their behavior is not always admirable, it is often entertaining and understandable. Every plot point and personality detail may not be true to Blau’s real life, but she writes in a way that mimics the honesty within memoir. Writers pilfer from their lives to varying degrees, and I like how she just flat out says, Yes, this is based on my family, right down to the Nixon articles pasted to the bathroom wall.
Of course, some might find it a bit awkward to write sex scenes that involve siblings. “It was a little weird thinking about my brother having sex— but once I distanced myself from it a little it was fine,” Blau said in a recent interview. She also talked about how she didn’t think she wrote about sex all that often until other people pointed it out. If I had not already read the interview, I don’t think I would have noted the amount of frisky business. It didn’t feel out of place or unnecessary, but maybe I just like my books with skin showing. Regardless, the sex fit with what the characters were going through at the time.
Drinking Closer to Home is both a funny and heart-squeezing book, though not outright heartbreaking. That’s not a criticism, just a distinction. For me, heart-squeezing is to poignancy as heartbreaking is to melancholy, and this book is not melancholy. This family may be nutty and occasionally gloomy, but they are not full of Earth-shattering despair. Not everyone could survive in a family like the Steins, but I get the impression they could not imagine functioning any other way.
Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.