2 novels about dysfunctional families on vacation

Ah, the vacation home. They look so peaceful in the brochure pictures – you know, without all the people there. Add a bunch of extended relatives, squabbling and resenting the heck out of one another, and you have an idyllic setting in which to work through decades of old hurts and long-simmering slights. Two new novels use roughly the same principle: Take a vacation house – one in Wales, and one off the coast of Cape Cod – cram them full of people, and sit back and watch the human comedy unfold.

By , Monitor fiction critic

1. 'The Red House'

Mark Haddon has never had a problem with empathy. He sprang to international prominence with his first literary novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which was written from deep inside the viewpoint of an autistic child.

In “The Red House,” his third novel for grown-ups, an estranged family spends a week in the Welsh countryside. The point of view cuts abruptly from one character to character – sometimes Haddon spends only a few paragraphs with one before bouncing to another. The fragmented approach takes a few pages to adjust to, but once each character is distinctly drawn, it's pretty easy to figure out whose thoughts you're eavesdropping on.

Angela and Richard haven't spent more than afternoon together in 15 years. “They'd never felt like brother and sister, just two people who spoke briefly on the phone every few weeks or so to manage the stages of their mother's decline.”

After their mother dies, Richard, a physician who recently remarried a woman, Louisa, with a teenage daughter, invites Angela and her husband, Dominic, and their three children on a weeklong vacation to Hay-on-Wye. Befuddled, but unable to afford a holiday of their own, they accept.

Once in Wales, Richard and Angela predictably spar about who had the tougher childhood and who was more devoted to their alcoholic mother, but there's much more going on under the surface. While Richard's life looks the most successful on the surface, he is facing a malpractice trial when he gets back to Edinburgh, and, unbeknownst to her parents, his stepdaughter, Melissa, will be walking into major repercussions over a cyberbullying “prank” that went very wrong.

Angela, now the main breadwinner of her family, is still grieving over her stillborn daughter, born 18 years earlier. Dominic is hiding his own secrets. Their son, Alex, an outdoorsman, is trying to figure out the best approach to hit on his new cousin. Daisy is going through a devout phase that infuriates her mother, who wonders if all the ostentatious Christianity isn't hiding a trauma. And little Benjy wants to sword fight and visit real castles.

“The normal rules had been temporarily suspended,” and the week away from familiar habits and environs is just long enough for everyone (except maybe Benjy) to snipe and flirt and quarrel, and maybe, for a lucky few, take stock of themselves.

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