What indeed is family happiness?

What indeed is family happiness?

A family gathers to celebrate the holidays. Thankfully, they bring plenty of baggage, says Rand Richards Cooper

Christmas in Austin

Meet the Essingers. They’re the kind of liberal, educated family in which unconventionality is prized, Christmas and Hanukkah are celebrated jointly, dinner-table talk waxes rowdy and smart, and professional accomplishment is taken for granted. The sunny reaches of upper-middle-class American life, in other words. But there are shadows.

Benjamin Markovits introduced readers to the Essinger clan in “A Weekend in New York,” which followed three days when the family — parents Liesel and Bill, and their four grown children and several grandkids — gathered to watch their youngest son, Paul, play in the U.S. Open tennis tournament. “Christmas in Austin” picks up a year and a half later, as they converge again — this time on the family’s Texas home for a holiday celebration. 

“Christmas in Austin” is a profoundly domestic novel. The plot is desultory; what occurs is talk, plus inner musings about family relationships. The Essingers argue about anything — whether dinner is cooked properly; whether it’s too cold to let the children sleep in the playhouse; whether to go out for doughnuts. Markovits specialises in moments of marital abrasion: You’re late, your spouse dithers over some detail, and a barb triggers a testy response. He has a pitch-perfect ear for the cutesy euphemisms parents devise for their kids (“Don’t be a pane of glass”) and for their snarky colloquies with precocious teenagers (“Your argument has a tone”). His narrator democratically samples all points of view, patiently laying out the Essingers’ conflicts while exploring the family’s “network of anxieties and affections.”

As any veteran of therapy knows, too much insight can get tiring, and the slowing-down of narrative time in “Christmas in Austin” — this is a 420-page novel covering six days — can lead to micro-inspections of micro-resentments. Yet this hyperscrutiny is exactly the point. 

Markovits delivers an engrossing inquiry into the nature of familiarity; family stories and code words, special places in the old neighbourhood, cherished holiday rituals. Though the Essinger siblings are anything but quiet, a quiet sadness pervades this account of holiday homecoming, and of their entry into early middle age. The novel forms a post-mortem of the happy childhood and the faint sense of anticlimax that millennials carry in its aftermath. With attentive and intelligent sympathy, Markovits digs beneath Tolstoy’s dictum about happy families to raise the question, What is family happiness? Are the Essingers doing more or less okay? A reader’s judgement may wobble in sync with the siblings’ own. Right down to its random-seeming ending, “Christmas in Austin” is aggressively inconclusive. For what is family, after all, but a conversation that never ends?