There is a good reason there are few books about happy families. They just are not that interesting. Tolstoy put it best, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In The Green Road by Anne Enright, the Madigans are an unhappy family and, of course, they are unhappy in their own way–but also in a way that many people will recognize and identify with.
When we meet the Madigans, the children are still at home, Their mother is emotional and dramatic and their father is quiet and sturdy. The book begins when Dan the second child and oldest boy announces he is going to become a priest sending his mother to her bed in what appears to be a regularly occurring manipulative ploy. She is a mother that expect much and while providing her children with care and love, she withhold approval. Nothing is ever enough.
The narrative jumps forward several years, catching us up with the adult children, on their own. Dan escaped the priesthood and is a closeted gay man in New York during the worst years of the AIDS epidemic. He insists he plans to marry Isabelle, a woman his gay friends write off as a perfect beard with “flat little triangular breasts like flesh origami.” Emmet is a humanitarian relief worker in Mali. He’s a bit of a stereotype, the humanitarian who loves humanity but cannot love a single individual human. Hanna, the youngest, is a failed actress whose surprise pregnancy has landed her with postpartum depression and a serious drinking problem. Constance, the eldest, keeps telling herself she is happy and reminds herself of all the reasons for her happiness–while also half-hoping she has cancer and could just be done with it.
So then we come to Rosaleen, the mother, widowed and missing her husband and their passionate loving. Missing her children and loving them from a distance with the querulous, touchy sort of love of the quintessential passive-aggressive. Demanding love, rejecting love all at the same time. She finds her home too large, too empty and decides to sell it, but not before having a final Christmas with all the children, something to bring them all together again one last time.
And so it happens, and the Madigans discover that you truly can’t go home again. There they are, these four who have this deep love and knowledge of each other that has been frozen in the past while they are strangers now, knowing little of each other’s lives, impatient of each other’s weakness, not even liking each other very much any more. This will seem so familiar to many with siblings who find after thousands of miles and decades of time have lost the connection they had. They remember each other with love but meet each other as strangers.
Of course there is a crisis after Rosaleen explains her plans and the family comes together in love and forgiveness. But Enright is too honest to let that be the end of it. No, there’s more and it’s painful, sad and seems so very true.
I recommend The Green Road without reservation. It is a fast paced and engrossing story. I cared about the characters, each of them individually and all of them as a family. Enright has keen insight into the complexities of family. The novel is best when it is in Ireland, there is an authenticity and naturalness there that is not so evident in the chapters in Mali, New York or Toronto which feel researched, not lived. The language is vivid and lush with intriguing images and brilliant capsule descriptions. She has an almost Tom Wolfe-like way of sketching a character. It is the recipient of the Man Booker Prize. They never pick bad books.