Families behaving oddly

Domestic mayhem is the order of the day in three new novels whose arrivals are perfectly timed to fill the gaps in readers' summer book bags. All three are by well-regarded writers, and all three feature strong-minded heroines in a variety of picturesque settings (London, Georgia, and New England). But while all feature tempting-sounding plots, only one delivers the kind of sheer reading enjoyment that keeps bookworms up way past their bedtimes.

Between, Georgia, by Joshilyn Jackson

The Crabtrees and the Fretts may not rank with the Montagues and the Capulets, but their feud is plenty big enough to roil the little town of Between, Ga. (pop. 90). At its eye stands 30-year-old Nonny, by birth a Crabtree and by adoption a Frett. Nonny works as an interpreter for the deaf in Athens, but she can't seem to stay away from home for more than a week. Drawing her back are her beloved adoptive mother, Stacia, a renowned dollmaker who is now deaf and blind; and Fisher, a little girl cousin whom Nonny fiercely loves.

When a Rottweiler belonging to a Crabtree attacks Stacia's emotionally fragile twin, Genny, the feud escalates from a simmer to a rolling boil. Then the dog and its siblings end up dead, and the Crabtree matriarch (Nonny's grandmother) vows revenge. Nonny, as the one truly in the middle, tries to keep everyone's anger from spilling into something more dangerous.

Underneath all the pyrotechnics, Joshilyn Jackson is cleverly exploring the nature of family and belonging. Of one character Nonny says, "I couldn't love her, but I didn't understand why it had never occurred to me to simply offer kindness." Jackson loads her novel with eccentrics straight from Southern Gothic central casting, but her writing brims with enough humor to make it compulsively readable. I was up until 1:30 in the morning finishing it, and instantly regretted racing through the minute it was over. (It may, however, have been gilding the lily to make Nonny's best friend, Henry, a dead ringer for Johnny Depp.)

The Brambles, by Eliza Minot

Arthur Bramble has a secret, and just a few weeks to decide whether to take it to his grave. The father of three grown children lost his beloved wife in a plane crash three years ago and has now been diagnosed with terminal cancer. His oldest daughter has offered to let him live with her, and Arthur is trying to decide whether to tell her and his other children the potentially life-altering news he's concealed for decades.

In the meantime, his kids are grappling with crises of their own. Margaret, mother of three, longs for two mutually exclusive things: greater peace and a new baby. Only son Max recently quit his job and is desperately concealing that fact from his wife. He holds to this strategy even after his secretive behavior causes her to believe he's having an affair. (Somebody explain to me, since when is unemployment worse than adultery?) Youngest child Edie is struggling with loneliness and a long-term eating disorder.

"The Brambles" is beautifully written, but problems with the story line undercut readers' enjoyment. Minot has an unfortunate tendency to have important conversations take place off the page. And the plot feels as if it's suspended in Jell-O – all you get is a little wobble every now and then. Finally, the "big revelation" turns out to be a ludicrous twist straight out of the pages of People magazine. In compensation, Minot offers elegantly turned sentences and warmhearted musings on motherhood and mortality. For some readers, that truly may be enough.

Wives Behaving Badly, by Elizabeth Buchan

Seven years into her marriage, Minty Lloyd has realized that the role of mistress suited her far more than that of wife. Especially since the woman she replaced was a paragon in every way – and a slender, preternaturally young-looking one at that.

Minty now has everything that once belonged to her rival, Rose: husband, house, sadly neglected garden, children, even (briefly) job. But the adult children hate her, and her husband seems to feel that Minty's efforts at everything from parenting to cooking are a pale shadow of her predecessor's. In this sequel to the more-enjoyable "Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman," Elizabeth Buchan borrows a page from fellow British chick-lit writer Emily Giffin ("Something Borrowed") by making the villain of the first novel the heroine of her sequel.

But while Giffin was able to muster some genuine affection for her erstwhile offender, Buchan appears to feel that Minty didn't suffer enough for her misdeeds in the first novel, and needs 300 more pages in which to be suitably punished. This may be a morally accurate assessment, but it doesn't exactly make for fun summer reading. And despite a central role in two books, husband Nathan remains such a cipher that it's unclear why either woman ever would have wanted him in the first place.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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