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Review-a-Day
Christian Science Monitor
Monday, March 10th, 2003


 

The Master Butchers Singing Club

by Louise Erdrich

A fine deli of family lore

A review by Ron Charles

Finally, the Books section has a scoop: Jane Austen is alive. What's more shocking, the grandmother of social satire has moved in with Jonathan Franzen, and the two of them have produced a love child called The Hills at Home.

How else to explain this allegedly debut novel from an unknown New Hampshire writer? Nancy Clark if she really exists has just published what is surely the wittiest family portrait in years.

There is an immense audience waiting for a book like this. It includes all those people made to feel prudish by their reluctance to endure the vulgarities of Hollywood, the inanity of sitcoms, or the gritty assault of modern literature; people of real taste who are nonetheless gently steered toward sweet, sanitized romances, as though they're elderly customers arriving with Green Stamps to purchase products no longer made. In other words, all those people still clinging, despite the persistent lack of satisfaction, to their literary pride and prejudice.

For the members of the Hill family, no matter where they've wandered to, home is in the town of Towne, population 1,900, outside Boston. "Lily's family," the narrator explains, "had all come for visits the summer past and none of them had gone away again."

A retired schoolteacher living alone in a sprawling, run-down estate, Lily Hill has no desire to entertain her sundry relatives for more than a few hours, particularly relatives who are so hard on her windows. "They gazed through them excessively," she thinks with annoyance. But everyone in the family had been raised to regard "the old house in Towne" as their home, and Lily would no more push them out than she would discard a used Ziploc bag. Some things -- in fact, many things -- do not change. This is, after all, a family that feels specially reassured when their minister reads from Psalms: "The hills stand above Jerusalem."

And so they intrude deeper and deeper on Lily's hospitality and each other's nerves, all the while imagining that they've come to help her out with the care of a house she can no longer manage.

They resist one another in subtle ways. When Lily stops providing "individual bars of specific and premium bath soaps," they forge her handwriting on the grocery lists. Clark has a sharp eye for the little consumer preferences they use to act out deeper conflicts: "Aunt Lily always bought Ajax brand because, she said, she had liked him in the Iliad."

It's a cold war, indeed, since Lily won't turn on the furnace. "Haven't you a pair of house gloves?" she asks her chilly relatives, while reading a volume of Francis Parkman by a 40-watt bulb.

There is no plot, per se, in these 500 pages, but rather a series of relentlessly witty observations about an extended family wholly devoted to one another, despite their annoying quirks and passive aggression. The details and background of this blithely self-centered family, their private hurts and silly dreams, and even their filial connections come out very slowly, like Aunt Lily's precious heating oil. Indeed, the only real action comes so late that readers deaf to this novel's considerable charm will have wandered away long before those scenes arrive.

Harvey, Lily's brother, is a thrice-widowed old crank, running through the romantic possibilities at a nearby retirement village. His grandson arrives to pursue a career as a standup comic, but no one in the family finds him particularly funny. Lily's newly unemployed nephew and his wife arrive with four shockingly spoiled children to start a business selling "boutique wood," culled from her land. Her libidinous niece is seeking refuge from a failed marriage and planning to write a book of wisdom that will earn her gobs of money so she can shop more.

From an episode of Nova, Lily learns that the universe is expanding. "Lately, however, this had not been Lily's experience."

One of the many surprising visitors who joins the family is Andy Happening, a graduate student in sociology, who comes to write his thesis on the Hills. "It is very seldom that anyone has ventured from the Groves of Academe into the surrounding suburbs," he explains in his typically pompous voice. "I shall provide a map. This could well prove to be as important as Margaret Mead's field work in Samoa."

He begins by weighing their groceries. In his first interview, he says to Lily, "The Eskimos have over 300 words in their vocabulary to describe snow, Miss Hill. Tell me, how many words do you have for vase?"

But beneath all the dry comedy lies the author's tenderness for these characters and her sincere appreciation for their connection to each other. In a culture constantly conspiring to atomize families, the Hills' chronic togetherness is strangely enviable. Annoying as they can be, relatives, their unfortunate spouses, and their ghastly children are the Hills' universe, and they wouldn't have it any other way. Clark understands so well that family is both the cause and cure of so much loneliness and frustration.

The Hills' solidarity and Clark's indefatigable wit are antidotes for a world hopelessly separated and dangerously serious. She's reportedly at work on a second volume. I'm not leaving till it arrives.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section.


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