The Position by Meg Wolitzer
Meg Wolitzer's latest book is told from the point of view of each of the members of the Mellow family, one chapter at a time, starting at the point where the children read the illustrated sex manual their parents wrote. Decades later, the ideals and assumptions of the 1970s have fallen apart as has the family itself, which is now working through a dispute about whether the book should be reissued, a serious health crisis for one of the adult children, and the doubts, neuroses, and insecurities of all the members of the family.
The author has a fine ear for the tone of the time and the setting in suburbia, and deftly skewers the absurdities and contradictions of the lives of the Mellows. The story of the way the family came apart is told little by little, since each character has preoccupations with only a piece of the story in any one chapter, so there is some suspense in working out what exactly happened. Maybe the betrayal that set things off was something of a surprise because of the scantiness of the foreshadowing devoted to it, but it might also be that this is not the most important plot point and deserved being downplayed a bit. In the last chapter, the story is told as an ensemble, and there is another surprise that for me packed a wallop, having gotten to know the individuals and their relationships over the course of the book. The infamous Position of the title does put in an appearance, too, standing in for all that was ridiculous and fake about the 1970s at the same time it comes off as a weird nostalgia piece with all the optimism that it contained at its heart.
Comedy and pathos nestle close as spoons in the stories of the characters, with some of the strongest writing in the sections devoted to the youngest of the children, Claudia, whose shyness and self-doubt have kept her from venturing far into the grown-up world. In a way, the parents, Paul and Roz Mellow, have also gotten stuck in their disharmonious separation and need to grow up themselves. The author offers a sign of hope covered by a cloud that those characters do not themselves know about at the close of the book, an irony which makes for an interesting finish. Despite the expectations set up in the reader by the premise of the book inside this book, the story is less about sex and more about secrets that the family members keep from one another.
I am looking forward to Meg Wolitzer's next book, and will try to look up some of her previous novels.