My new novel HOUSE ON FIRE is about a perfectly blended family—Leigh and Pete and their five combined children, aged ten to twenty. They all get along like a house on—well, you know the expression. Until one rainy night, when a teenage party followed by a road accident leaves Leigh’s daughter dead and Pete’s son charged with vehicular manslaughter. Instantly the fault lines open up and the foundation of their perfectly blended family crumbles.
Novelists have long plowed fertile fields when it comes to complicated family situations. Those fields can be even more fertile in a blended family. To (badly) paraphrase Tolstoy, all blended families are happy and unhappy in their own way.
Here’s a sampling of some of the many novels that have treated this subject.
Ann Patchett is among my favorite contemporary novelists. She writes intoxicating stories set in far-flung locales (BEL CANTO and STATE OF WONDER), but in COMMONWEALTH she stays closer to home—so close that she draws heavily from her own history as a member of a blended family. Bert, married father of four, falls for Beverly, married mother of two. They ditch their respective spouses in California to set up house in Virginia, a move that condemns their assorted children to regular cross-country trips to visit with this parent or that. The combined six children spend some uneasy summer vacations together in Virginia with little in common beyond their mutual hatred for Bert and Beverly. Tragedy strikes, and when the marriage fails to survive it, the stepsiblings become ex-stepsiblings. But the bond they formed during those summers—and the secret guilt they share over the tragedy—survives for decades. Blended families may have no greater chance of success than other families (in fact, they often have less), but the history they share leaves a permanent mark.
Read with a Lime Spritzer
Citrus seems appropriate for a Southern California setting. At times funny and heart-wrenching, Patchett’s COMMONWEALTH covers a multigenerational saga that begins with a forbidden kiss. From there a road diverges for two families in very different ways. While Bert Cousins arrives at the fateful christening party with a bottle of gin, might we suggest a lime spritzer?
Scottoline pursues a similar theme in her novel and, like Patchett, she mines her personal history for material—specifically her own experience as an ex-stepmother. Jill Farrow has been divorced from Abby’s father for three years but she was Abby’s stepmother for eight years before that, and maternal love dies hard. When the girl turns up one night claiming that her father has been murdered and begging for Jill’s help to prove it, Jill can’t help but heed the call. Over the objections of her new fiancé, she turns amateur sleuth to delve into the mysterious circumstances of her ex-husband’s death. “What’s a family?” she says. “Isn’t it forever? The love doesn’t stop when the legal relationship does.”
Thrice-married Adrian Wolfe is a successful architect, a genuinely nice man who is simply addicted to falling in love. But it’s all fine, he thinks, because his three families get along famously. The daughter from his first wife is the au pair for the second; Wife Number Three acts as the family scheduler and photographer of family events; and they all spend annual holidays together in the same house. When his third wife dies under puzzling circumstances, Adrian is devastated, but within a year he’s already flirting with the idea of remarrying. Until he discovers a cache of anonymous emails sent to the third wife in the months before her death, telling her how she’s ruined the lives of the first two families and why she should just disappear. It turns out Adrian was deluding himself about the successful blending of his families. In fact, he’s done grievous harm, both to his wronged wives and to his emotionally abandoned children. THE THIRD WIFE reminds us that every new blended family is born from the death of the one before, and that those deaths leave scars. It’s a true cautionary tale about the hazards of attempting a blended family.
The relationships in this novel require a multileaf family tree schematic to illustrate. Josie, divorced mother of Rufus, marries Matthew, divorced father of three other children. Josie’s ex is Tom, who was previously married to Pauline, who died, leaving him with a daughter, Dale, who is a needy 25-year-old, and a son, Lucas, who is engaged to marry Amy. Tom becomes engaged to Elizabeth, while Matthew’s ex, a self-pitying hysteric, has a breakdown that results in their three children joining Matthew and Josie’s household. Stepmothers are mythically the cruel ones, but in this story it’s the stepchildren who cause all the trouble. Two parallel stories unfold. First Josie tries to integrate Matthew’s three children into their family life, but fifteen-year-old Becky feels she must act as proxy for her spurned mother and behaves with open hostility toward Josie. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s efforts to make a life with Tom are undermined by Dale, who prances in and out of their home at will and keeps a virtual shrine to her dead mother in their living room. Josie ultimately succeeds in persuading Becky that they can be friends if not family, but Dale is so destructive that Elizabeth ends her engagement to Tom; Lucas’s fiancée ends their engagement, too. In both narratives, the message seems to be that while it’s the adults who have a past, it’s the children who can’t escape it.
This selection may strike some as a curveball, but bear with me: I promise I’m not including it solely because it’s my favorite novel of all time. Rather, it’s the story of a cataclysmic failure to create a blended family. The launchpad of all the action is old Mr. Earnshaw’s attempt to shoehorn another child into his family. That child is Heathcliff, a street urchin, whom Earnshaw foists upon his two motherless children. They both refuse to accept Heathcliff as their brother, although in diametrically different ways. Hindley, the son and heir, is wildly resentful of the newcomer, and after old Earnshaw’s death, he does all that he can to abuse and abase young Heathcliff. Meanwhile, Cathy, falls madly in love with her foster brother. Their romance is doomed, not least because Heathcliff may actually be Earnshaw’s bastard son. In any event, Cathy instead marries Edgar, a neighboring member of the gentry. Heathcliff wreaks his vengeance by marrying Edgar’s sister and treating her abysmally, and by taking Hindley’s orphaned son, Hareton, as his own foster child, with the express goal of debasing the boy in the same way Hindley debased him. He aims to repeat the cycle of disastrous blended families, but his efforts backfire. Hareton grows up to be an honorable young man, and Heathcliff can’t help but admire him. In turn, Hareton loves Heathcliff and openly weeps upon his death. This novel has a mixed message on blended families: good intentions—like old Earnshaw’s—don’t guarantee success; neither do bad intentions—like Heathcliff’s—necessarily mean failure. Blended families chart their own course. Like all families.
“Whatever souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”
The turbulent and tempestuous love story of Cathy and Heathcliff spans two generations—from the time Heathcliff, a strange, coarse young boy, is brought to live on the Earnshaws’ windswept estate, through Cathy’s marriage to Edgar Linton and Heathcliff’s plans for revenge, to Cathy’s death years later and the eventual union of the surviving Earnshaw and Linton heirs. A masterpiece of imaginative fiction, Wuthering Heights (the author’s only novel) remains as poignant and compelling today as it was when first published in 1847.