Sunday, August 23, 2009
Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline
I couldn't help but think of the recent Taconic crash while reading the opening of this novel. A mother (who has been drinking, by most definitions moderately) gets in a car accident and a young child dies. She was not technically at fault but that doesn't relieve the guilt and depression that plague her. Obviously the crash on the Taconic (where eight individuals died including the driver, who has since been reported to have been drunk) is very different than the accident in this story, and yet it all connects. Mothers and driving. Loss and blame. Interestingly, since I finished the book, Baker Kline posted on her blog connecting the horrific crash on the Taconic with her inspiration for this story.
At the heart of this novel is two couples. In the past they made the perfect foursome. But now Claire is sleeping with her best friend Allison's husband. Obviously the dynamic has shifted.
Baker Kline creates a complex narrative to explain the connections and experiences between these four well-developed characters. The narrative of the book shifts in time, so that we learn about the events of the present at the same time that we delve into slivers of the past that explain the complex layers of the present. For example, halfway through the book, we learn that Charlie, Allison's husband, studied at Oxford with Ben and Claire. He fell in love with Claire, who was already engaged to Ben, and Claire realized that to keep Charlie in their lives their threesome must become a foursome. So she invited Allison, her childhood best friend to visit.
It angered me to learn about Charlie's complex emotions. At first introduction, he is a cheater, ready to ease out of his suburban life in a family of four. While the reader yearns for an explanation for Charlie and Claire's terrible betrayal, the layered truth Baker Kline reveals did not absolve them in my eyes. Claire comes across as a selfish woman, who seeks as much attention as she can. As a young person she wanted both Ben and Charlie. As a thirtysomething woman she is ready to hurt countless individuals in order to get what she wants: fame and the excitement of the unsafe choice she didn't pick as a young person, Charlie.
Baker Kline uses all four characters to explore the idea of wanting dual lives, and lamenting past choices. Allison years for her working life pre children while also wanting the life she has with her beautiful children. She realizes that she has never once made a decision based solely on her own desires. She is caught up in meeting the needs of her husband and children. Claire wanted a life with Ben, steady and solid, with the promise of his clear adoration and love. He was the safe choice as his love was all-encompassing. Charlie, on the other hand, was the risky choice as he was infatuated with Claire.
Baker Kline uses this novel to explore the choices adults make. City life or suburbs. A life without children or a life with. Suitor 1 or Suitor 2. This makes the book refreshingly real. These are choices most individuals face and the decision is never easy. All of the four main characters, like real individuals, have been forced to compromise. Charlie in particular seems to have thought his choices would lead to a different outcome. There is a sense that he did everything right. Worked hard, married the right type of woman. It is obvious though that he hasn't truly committed to these choices. I found myself frustrated by Claire and Charlie - not because they are adulterers but because they are so extremely selfish. All of their actions seem driven by their wants, in such an extreme manner. It isn't hard to believe that a father would leave his two children to follow his own desires; but it still angers me.
Overall, I found this story incredibly engaging. While I found myself perplexed by some of the character's choices, I felt Baker Kline succeeded in capturing many of the complexities of modern life and modern marriage.