If Thanksgiving with the family still is buzzing on your nerves, it could be worse. You could have a family like the Tuchmans.
The Tuchmans — Victor and Barbra, their adult children Alex and Gary, their spouses and a couple of grandkids — are at the center of Jami Attenberg’s new novel, “All This Could Be Yours.”
This is the seventh book by Attenberg, whose best-sellers include “The Middlesteins” and “All Grown Up.” She often writes about family relationships in all their complexity, and in “All This Could Be Yours” she does so with mordant humor and painful clarity.
The book is set around Victor’s deathbed in a New Orleans hospital, but much of it transpires in flashbacks as members of his family look back to the past, some trying to locate the sources of their dysfunction, others trying to cover them up.
Except for a brief opening chapter, Victor is unconscious after suffering a heart attack at age 73, no big surprise after a lifetime of steaks, cigars and martinis and scoffing at health care. Even silent and tangled in tubes in a hospital bed, though, he’s still the dominating force in the family.
Victor ostensibly is a real estate developer, but his family has long been determined to ignore what he really does when he’s gone for weeks at a time. Why question what pays for the big house in Connecticut, the good schools, the many luxuries? “Clarity of thought was dangerous in their home,” Alex recalls. “The background hum was what made the house run.”
Victor’s favorite TV show, though, is “The Sopranos.” He tells Alex, “They really get it right.”
Not long before the book begins, Victor and Barbra sold the big house and moved to New Orleans, a city where their only tie is that son Gary lives there with his wife, Twyla, and their daughter, Avery. Their real reasons for moving there are among the many dark secrets the novel reveals.
When Victor collapses, Gary, who works as a television director, is in Los Angeles and resists coming back. His sister, Alex, is a lawyer who lives near Chicago, divorced from the father of her teenage daughter, Sadie.
Alex flies to New Orleans immediately, where she engages in an emotional duel with her mother. Alex wants to know the truth about her father and about her parents’ abusive relationship; Barbra wants her daughter to tell Victor she forgives him.
In chapters that focus on one character at a time, Attenberg takes us inside the family’s history from different angles to create an in-depth portrait. Barbra’s children wonder why she has stayed with Victor for decades; Attenberg recounts their early days together, when Barbra was consciously using her good looks and charm to climb out of poverty. When she met Victor, she found him “as dangerous as hell and headed up, away, and fast. She felt such a thrill in her body that she nearly collapsed from it.”
That seductive danger will grow more complicated. His father’s behavior will leave Gary “seeking an absence of a consideration of women. He didn’t want to have to care anymore about what they thought or felt. He’d spent his whole life caring, in contrast to his father, who’d spent his whole life not caring.”
Alex reflects at her father’s bedside, “It was true: what little physical abuse he had dealt her had left few emotional scars. What had taken her longer to wash away were his impressions of her body, the bodies of other women. His commentary, his interests, his gaze.”
Victor damages the women in his life in many ways, but his constant criticism of their appearance endures. When 12-year-old Alex, who has a bit of barely visible baby fat, jumps in for a swim, he remarks, “Little piggie in the pool.” As he lay dying, Barbra, who’s almost 70, paces the hospital hallways to get her steps in, chanting under her breath her longtime mantra: “Pretty and thin, pretty and thin.”
Attenberg also devotes chapters to other characters, such as Gary’s troubled wife, Twyla, and her wild-girl friend, Sierra. Corey, the EMT who takes Victor to the hospital, occupies several short chapters; he becomes the connection to a woman named Sharon, whose life story revolves around a very different kind of family — and who will prove to be one last, surprising link to Victor.
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Victor Tuchman might be a “monster,” as his wife thinks, with a few last blows to deal before he dies, but the story of his family’s survival is engrossing. As Alex thinks when she hears he’s dying: “Now, this is happening. Now, things could be different.”