Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Father of the Rain by Lily King

I have loved both of Lily King's previous novels. I remember finding and reading The Pleasing Hour before it was chosen as a BandN Discover New Writer's pick. I was proud of myself for discovering it on my own. Years later, details from The Pleasing Hour and The English Teacher still stand a fresh in my mind. I know that Father of the Rain will stay with me for quite a while as well. King is such a talented writer. Right now she can do no wrong in my eyes (although I have to admit I didn't love the end of Father of the Rain.

I was immediately drawn into Father of the Rain. I felt the rawness and vulnerability of eleven year old Daley. Daley has a secret -- she and her mother are leaving her father-- and because of this secret she chooses an ugly dog as her birthday present. Daley doesn't choose a Newfoundland, knowing that such a dog would make it harder to leave. This detail was so anguishing, so real. Following Daley as she navigates between her mother and father's worlds and homes is fascinating and painful. Throughout I was frustrated to see that no one was helping Dailey through this transition. But I am sure that was very realistic of the time period.

King's rendering of the time period, the seventies, is fascinating. The details she chooses to harness the story in this time period are evocative, and grounded in history. She sprinkles in details of pure historical texture: "Project Genesis" (black students attending "camp" while swimming at rich white people's houses), the variety of reactions prior to Nixon true colors are revealed, the freeness about sex. Poor Daley is left asking what a boner is when Elyse, the five year old daughter of her father's new partner(Dailey's best friend Patrick's divorced mother) says: "Gardiner you better watch it or you will get a boner." It's sad that this little five year-old knows this term but not surprising considering the lifestyle happening at Dailey's father's house. Elyse is an intriguing character as she is so little and exposed to such crazy behavior. I was intrigued right away to see if Dailey's father marries Mrs. Tabor and Patrick, Elyse and Frank become Dailey's step children or if the cohabitation would end and lead to further confusion.

I truly enjoyed so many details in this story. Watching Dailey navigate between diametrically different parents in a time period that is ripe with confusion is fascinating. Dailey loves her father fiercely, even as she sees his flaws, as she is only eleven. King deftly portrays the naivete of a preteen so captivatingly.

The second part of the novel shifts to Daley's adulthood, as she prepares to drive cross-country to move in with her boyfriend (a black man) and begin a teaching position at UC Berkley. The adult Daley (a professor of anthropology) has rejected her father's narrow worldview. But after years of minimal contact with her father, she is lured home to help him get sober and her dream future sits unbalanced on a precarious edge. The reader wants to scream at some of Daley's actions and her choices to give her father more chances -- and yet her actions are incredibly human. While there is so much about Daley's father to dislike (his small-mindness, his bigotry, the way he belittles some of his children's choices), one understands why Daley cannot turn her back on him. He is after all her father. King displays humanity in a broad swath: while Daley's father, Gardiner, is a truly flawed man, he is also oddly beguiling. I don't understand or like his choices, and while they are surprising they are also somehow deeply human. He is a man who is scared to be alone. A man who grips onto relationships for dear life. And so it is surprising that he chooses to marry so soon after his wife leaves, and yet not. It is surprising that he thinks it is a good idea to cohabitate with his best friends wife in the hopes that he will become his third wife (even though she has been married to his friend for forty years). Gardiner is a man who is a product of his upbringing, and his time period, as Margot Livesey writes: he is a "man who lives in the everyday world but follows almost one of the everday rules." While one wants him to be able to ground himself, grow up and truly embrace help (and while I was shocked by the way he throws away all his daughter's efforts even after all she has done for him) the reality is many people are incapable of truly recovering. King takes no easy outs in making the story what one expects. I was truly surprised by various turns in the story. King embraces some inherent ugliness and for that I applaud her.

In his review of the book Jim Shepard writes: "Lily King's Father of the Rain is the most unsettling and exhilarating kind of love story--the sort that interrogates just how resilient the bonds of unconditional love can remain, even after a lifetime of damage at the hands of a heedless parent. This is a passionate and beautifully observed and fair-minded novel." And yes. YES.

The one thing that irked me about the novel is the final ending. Both Father of the Rain and the book I read subsequently (Men and Dogs) had tie-ins to Obama's election. And while I understand how powerful it is to this narrative to show how Daley's world (and our world) progressed from the complex world of the 70s, I found the ending too neat. I believe that Daley and her partner would celebrate the election with their children. I am just not sure how much I believe in the final version of Gardner we are introduced to. That being said, I think Gardiner is truly unpredictable and so maybe I can't attempt to predict his actions.

King broadly paints America and humanity in this novel. She creates memorable characters, she explains how far we have come as a nation, she captivates the reader and forces us to face ugly realities. I loved this novel. Part of me wants to read it again to find even deeper meaning. I can't wait to hear what others thought about this deeply crafted novel. How did you feel in the end?

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