Picks and Pans Review: Back in the Blue House
Jeff Giles, 26, writes the "Night Life" column for The New Yorker, but that hardly qualifies him as a celebrity achiever; he holds no controversial views and recounts no earthshaking events in the small New York and Massachusetts towns of his childhood. Nevertheless, Giles has dared to publish this novel based on his life history. For so limited a memoir to succeed, its characters must engage us deeply; above all, it must entertain. Back in the Blue House satisfies on both counts.
His family's story, Giles has said, is "about recovery. We all try to deal with being a divorced family in a gossipy, conservative suburb.... As for how much is factual: I like to think that this book is one of those commercials in which a car swerves off the road while the screen flashes with the reassuring words: A RE-CREATION."
Re-creation or not, the senior Gileses and their chaotic on-again, off-again marriage are hard to forget. Mom, the former Susan Ceci, born in Rhode Island to Italian immigrants, would be a perfect role for Cher: nervy, fast-talking, full of anxious love. Father Glen is an airline pilot, an incorrigible womanizer addicted to stewardesses. The Gileses divorce; Susan remarries, is courted anew by Glen, divorces the second husband and moves with Glen and the children—Jeff and an older sister, Susan Karen—to Cohasset, on Boston's south shore, where she breaks with Glen again. Susan Karen becomes a teenage boozer, makes life hell for everyone, and finds herself at last in a hairdressing career.
All the family voices rise clearly from these pages—bawdy, wistful—recalling the passions that shaped their lives. But it is the son's sly, perceptive writing that marks this book. "If we are the generation that will never be able to afford a house, what will happen to all the houses?" he writes. At Brown University, Jeff's innocent request for sleeping pills is turned down, possibly because "my fellow students had recently requested that Health Services stockpile 'suicide pills' in the event of nuclear war." And there is this account of a beau-seeking Mom's appeal for help with a personal ad: "Jeffrey, I can't do it myself. I read these things and it's like 'DWF seeks.... 'I don't even know what these initials stand for...they sound like airports. Listen to this: GWM seeks discreet—" "I don't think you want to answer that one, Mom."
This is Jeff Giles's first book. It's an impressive debut. (Ticknor & Fields, $19.95)
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