What the Family Needed

Steven Amsterdam. Riverhead, $26.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-59448-639-5
Amsterdam’s second novel (after Things We Didn’t Know) tackles the family-in-crisis trope: divorce, financial struggles, a child adrift, and the loss of a spouse. Except each member of this family has a superpower. The book is written in vignettes that span 30 years and never land on the same person twice, and one of the delights is piecing together the truth about each character as his or her inner world and the family’s perception intersect. Some of the characters’ superpowers underscore the book’s conventionality—an insecure 15-year-old girl wills herself invisible—while others feel somewhat arbitrary. Why exactly does Natalie have the power to swim fantastically? (The answer provided is flimsy at best.) Yet there are moments when the writing’s simplicity becomes its own kind of superpower. In a section on grief, Peter loses his wife of 41 years (Natalie, the swimmer) and discovers he can make his desires real: funeral well-wishers appear and then vanish; Natalie’s pumpkin mash steams on a plate and only after eating does Peter decide the flavor is too much to bear. It’s a fresh take on grief, and when Peter realizes his loss, and that two lives lived in tandem are just that, the book soars. A late revelation, however, threatens to reduce each vignette, and the novel, into a stylistic exercise. Agent: Grainne Fox, Fletcher & Co. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 01/14/2013
Release date: 03/21/2013
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