Genre: Adult Fiction
Pub. Date: September 19, 2017
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Tolstoy’s begins “Anna Karenina” with his now famous first line of “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That opening is a fitting way to begin this review by author, Janet Peery, a National Book Award finalist in 1996. In this character-driven novel, her work has shades of Jonathan Franzen’s, “The Corrections.” “Exact Nature” is a family drama that looks into the dynamics of a family in Kansas as the parents enter their sunset years. The wife has been a homemaker and her husband is a retired judge who is now showing signs of dementia. They had six children but lost one child decades earlier after a lifetime of health issues. The surviving five adult children are well into middle-age and learning how to cope with their aging parents. Unfortunately, their children might be living in their middle-aged bodies, but seem trapped within their ten-year-old minds, filled with sibling rivalry. The children (still in competition for being the favorite) all have eyes on their parents’ estate that they hope to inherit, especially one special chair of their father’s.
In an obvious attempt to obtain the chair, the youngest daughter suggests hosting an 89th birthday party for the father. She innocently suggests bringing the chair over to her home so he can sit in it during the party. The siblings all see right through this and they are annoyed. The reader is chuckling. At the party, the youngest, their mother’s favorite, passes out in the birthday cake. The youngest is a charming, sweet, gay man who is also hopelessly drug-addicted. They realize once again they will need to drag him to rehab. But it soon becomes clear that, although the youngest is the designated problem child, all the children have issues. Unlike the youngest, they are functioning, but still struggle with prescription drugs, maintaining long-term relationships, foreclosure, DUIs (thank goodness the judge still has some influence), and a hidden sexual identity issue. None are shining stars. In other words, they are your typical dysfunctional family, and they are all unhappy in their own way. But here is the thing: they are as caring as they are troubled. And throughout the story, just when you think they are terrible to one another, you come to see their unbreakable bonds. You will giggle when the daughters take their mom on a “mother-daughter” day road trip to see her childhood home. They almost kill each other through bickering, yet the end result is heartwarming.
In beautiful prose, Perry, gives us a portrayal of real life, with characters as flawed as real people. We are given an authentic year in their lives, complete with medical, emotional, mental, physical, and financial troubles. I found this novel to be a spot-on family portrait, with its members still loving each other for who they are. A story about forgiveness without being preachy, it left me with lingering warmth. This is a good book to help one remember that in today’s world we all seem obsessed with appearing perfect, when in reality none of us are or ever will be. The youngest son spends time wondering how there can be so many troubles in a family built around a marriage that seemed trouble-less by comparison. He is unable to find an answer. The reader is free to make their own conclusion, for Perry does not tell us. We are left with the thought-provoking question of just what makes a family a happy or unhappy one. It may not be as simple as Tolstoy suggested.
I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.
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