Recently, my young son approached me in tears. One of his friends had told him you can’t live with your parents forever, that one day you have to get a house and pay all the money and clean all the things – by yourself. “I never want to leave you,” he said. I stroked his hair. “Don’t worry. You can stay here always.”
But inside, I was panicking. I was in the midst of reading Jennifer Close’s second novel, The Smart One, about a trio of offspring who either never leave the nest or come back to it (one with a pregnant girlfriend – shudder) displaying that sense of entitlement that can turn parenting into the most thankless of tasks.
Martha is a failed nurse who manages a J. Crew store. She methodically stacks the navy pants, “pulling the crotch of each pair tightly … and then folding the legs just right to get a perfect crease.” She resents her therapist for seeming bored with her problems and is dumped by her real-estate agent because, let’s face it, she’s never going to work up the courage to buy a place. Martha’s familial role – we all have one, like it or not – is the “smart one.” Except, really, she’s the awkward one, the one who suffers from a cruel form of arrested development.
Post breakup, Claire, the “pretty one,” sits in a hollowed-out New York apartment watching talk shows while her bank account drains. “On Tuesday, the guest was a kidnapping specialist, who talked the audience through gory details of women being kidnapped and raped. Claire forced herself to watch as a reminder that things could be much worse.” Things do get worse: She runs out of money and has no choice but to move back to her childhood home in Philadelphia.
Max, “the favourite,” went from being a sweet baby to an endearing boy to a charmingly rakish young man. He’s now a college senior with a gorgeous girlfriend and a bright future. Then he gets her pregnant and the halo slips.
Meanwhile, Weezy, the matriarch, must shoulder the blame for the shortcomings of her children, all of whom are now under her roof again. All she wanted was the best for them, but instead, she held them back by taking care of them so well that when it came time to get that house, pay those bills, clean those things (and use a condom, for heaven’s sake), they didn’t have a clue.
Close’s gift as a writer is her spare but delicious prose and unflinching way of describing her characters. These characters don’t redeem themselves spectacularly or become heroes. But they do eventually manage to be who they are – who they really are – and find happiness in the process. That might be all that can be asked from life, and it’s certainly all a mother can hope for her children.
Marissa Stapley Ponikowski teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto.