In Print : A family's "Tangled Roots"
"Tangled Roots" by Sue Guiney, Bluechrome Publishing, U.K. 2008. 346 pp. 12.99 pounds (approx. $19.50)
Like the author, the protagonists in Sue Guiney's debut novel, "Tangled Roots," vacation on Martha's Vineyard. Grace and John Rosen, mother and son, also spend time in London, which has been Ms. Guiney's home base for the past 20 years when she's not summering in Chilmark. Almost like a double-sided memoir, "Tangled Roots" tells its story in the voices of Grace and John through alternating chapters. Dialogue takes a back seat to introspection and straight narrative.
John is an unmarried, 40-year-old physics professor at an unnamed Boston university whose personal and professional life has ground to a halt. His mother is a widowed housewife heading toward the end of life, chock full of stories to tell. Ms. Guiney's strategy of unraveling the family's "tangled roots" by telling the family's story from the points of view of two separate characters makes it fun - sometimes challenging - for the reader. Grace, for instance, remembers her son's teen years in London very differently than he does, and one may talk about an event at an entirely separate point in the narrative from the other.
It would have been nice to have the two of them sit down and reminisce together - even share an insight or two. But their relationship is strained; as is the case in many dysfunctional families, they don't understand each other very well.
Baseball provides a thread that ties the family together. John plays in high school, and Grace reminisces about attending his games with her husband, Jack. As she ages, the game seems to drop out of her life, while John becomes a fanatic Red Sox fan as an adult. Even though he's in Moscow at the time, he goes to great lengths to listen to the historic 2004 game in St. Louis, when the moon eclipsed and the Red Sox clinched the World Series.
Most fascinating of all are the glimpses the reader catches of John's thought processes as a physicist. He tends to make sense of his own feelings through the concepts of theoretical physics. Early on, he says of the paralysis he's experiencing, "Something was out of synch, like I was going through some sort of conversion-of-matter inside."
Other times John's analogies come from dark matter, his research on holograms, or a class he teaches on entropy. The connection is most fully realized in the latter: he's a good teacher. If his emotional intelligence registers on the low side, he's certainly no slouch in academia.
Thanks to Ms. Guiney's skillful characterization, John comes across as a believable regular guy, not a cold intellectual. The novel could have taken his physics musings a lot further.
His mother Grace lives in a more ordinary, garden-variety world, one that is more of a challenge to make as interesting as John's. But Ms. Guiney packs a lot of domestic events - births, deaths, accidents, illnesses - into the family's life, most frequently told from Grace's point of view. Grace's life as she tells it has hardly been dull.
Ms. Guiney opens Part II of the novel with a quote from Albert Einstein: "People like us, who believe in physics know that the disconnection between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion." She takes good advantage of this dictum to mix up "the arrows of time" in her storytelling, although it sometimes defuses the suspense. Grace or John may drop in a reference to a major-life happening that the story doesn't really catch up to until much later. That can make it hard for the fleshed-out event to live up to its promise.
Commendable, though, is the author's ability to weave a richly textured fabric of family life with meditations on religion, love and the role of friendship, while leaving room for physics, quotidian life, and, of course, baseball.
Brooks Robards is a frequent contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.