esIn Stranger, Father, Beloved, Taylor Larsen weaves a family tapestry depicting the slow unraveling of the James family.
The story begins with a party thrown by Michael James and his wife Nancy. The party gives them something to do together – an unusual occurrence since they’d grown extremely distant through the twenty years of their marriage.
“Michael and Nancy James prepared for the last party they would ever have, though they didn’t know it at the time. …They were united in this endeavor only. Nancy would follow Michael into the bathroom while he brushed his teeth and discuss her plans for decorating the tables, and they hashed and rehashed the options for hours until they were sure everything would look just right.”
Michael had long ago been diagnosed with a nebulous paranoid anxiety disorder for which he takes medication that many times does little good. His family is accustomed to his strange and unpredictable behavior. Michael lives in constant fear of having another mental breakdown.
“Talking with other people could be a horrifying experience, though Michael could usually pass for normal. Most of the pain was internal, a private hell that his silent brooding twin offered up daily tickets to.”
At the party, Michael is in awe when he sees Nancy talking with another man – she’s been transformed into someone else – carefree and happy. Michael is mortified that he’s never been able to make Nancy happy all these years, and is suddenly certain that his family would be better off with this other man – John, a local landscaper. Michael devises a bizarre plan to integrate John into his family, the only way he can fix the mess he’s made of all of their lives.
“She appeared to him a different woman from the one he had married. …He was amazed to see her so animated, so unself-conscious. …The weight that normally coated Nancy’s face seemed to have miraculously left her features. …It was at that moment that Michael realized, without a doubt, that this was the man Nancy should have married.”
In addition to his emotional struggles, Michael is clueless about how to deal with his sixteen-year-old daughter, Ryan, who constantly rebels against the odd friction within their family. She is rarely at home, choosing instead to spend entire days at her former best friend Carol’s house. Carol’s mother is the one she would have chosen to raise her. Ryan experiences sexual awakenings that both scare and mesmerize her, but her family is of no use in helping her sort out the puzzle that has become her life.
While reading Stranger, Father, Beloved, I felt like I was living in the tormented mind of Michael James, experiencing his mental and emotional unraveling. Successful on the outside, but tortured on the inside. I could feel his discomfort in his own skin, the way he feels like an intruder within his own family, a foreigner in his own home. I experienced both his fear and resignation in having what he’d always believed was a mental illness when it was really something else entirely.
I felt Michael’s shame, worn like a second skin, and the torture of living a life that was never meant to be his. At living a lie. Then finally coming to the realization that he was truly someone else.
Stranger, Father, Beloved is a beautifully-written tragedy that allows us to feel what it’s like to pretend to be someone you’re not and the misery that can unravel even the most successful of us.
(Thanks to Gallery Books for providing a copy for reading and review).