The three children of Ginny and William Owens fled their Vermont home for college and independent lives years ago — or so it seems until the life-shattering summer when various personal catastrophes send the trio home again for “visits” with indeterminate departure dates. As they tap into the comfort, security, and laundry services of good old Mom and Dad, the tender trap of familial love becomes something of a tinder box.
That premise — three siblings suffer quarter-life crises and simultaneously seek parental support — may feel contrived unless you’re willing to chalk it up to poetic license. If you are, The Arrivals — Meg Mitchell Moore’s perceptive first novel — becomes a moving story about conflicted adult children who are still learning how to be grown-ups. Along the way, we learn a good deal about the inner lives of conflicted parents trying to help them fly — make that finally fly — the coop.
The Owens’ oldest child, Lillian, a 36-year-old stay-at-home mother of two, has left her husband after learning of his fling with his young assistant — a “snub-nosed snowboarder,” no less. In an angry muddle, Lillian is too self-centered, or perhaps too childish, to notice how she has sabotaged her parents’ sense of order. She blithely scatters her toddler’s sippy cups and her baby’s onesies throughout their once-tidy empty nest.
Next to arrive is their son, Stephen, and his pregnant wife, Jane, a workaholic from New York City who’s frenetically fused to her BlackBerry. Their surprise weekend visit turns into an extended stay after Jane suffers a near-miscarriage and is consigned to bed rest — in Lillian’s childhood bedroom, no less — for who knows how long.
Finally, Rachel, the youngest at 29, shows up on a bus from the city, fleeing insecurities at work and the grief of a relationship with Mr. Wrong, whose abrupt departure has left her unable to pay the rent.
Let the hilarity and head-butting begin!
Despite these early-warning signs of a two-dimensional Hollywood dramedy dead ahead (I’m seeing Meryl Streep as Ginny Owens), Moore uses solid writing to bring some welcome depth to the family-dysfunction genre. During a midsummer heat wave, for example, the immobilized Lillian feels as if everyone is “trapped inside a giant bubble of humidity pulled ever closer to the center of the earth.” Lillian’s daughter, Olivia, “lifted her sippy cup of water to her lips and drank listlessly, more out of necessity than pleasure, the way a jaded drunk in a dark bar in the midafternoon might drink.”
The most sympathetic characters in The Arrivals are Owens père and mère: They feel their children’s pain — until they realize maybe they shouldn’t have to. When the ever-patient William loses his cool on a particularly hectic day, telling Ginny, “I’m just tired of … the mess,” he’s describing much more than his inability to find the phone beneath the clutter. Ginny spends an inordinate amount of time doing laundry; toward the end of the book, the washing machine breaks down (symbolism alert!) along with her composure. (At a Laundromat she finally informs Lillian, “I expect you to act like the adult and the mother that you are.” ’Bout time, Ginny!)
Yet the fact that Ginny is needed once more sends her caroming from disappointment to delight and back again. Why aren’t her children happy and secure enough not to need her? Was it something she (mis-)did that made them this dependent? “I’m sixty-three years old,” she tells William after weeks of absorbing their kids’ crises. “This is what I’ve done with my life. They’re my masterpiece, and they’re broken.”
Bent, maybe, but hardly broken beyond repair. A series of somewhat predictable climactic events leads the entire Owen brood a few steps closer to maturity — which is to say, a few steps closer to understanding that even if a family can’t have it all, with a little compromise it can still salvage something that’s pretty darn good.
Christina Ianzito is a researcher-writer for AARP The Magazine.