Title: A Field Guide to the North American Family
Author: Garth Risk Hallberg
Genre: Literary Fiction
Number of Pages: 146
I saw this novella on a shelf at the library and even though I’d never heard of it before, I was taken in by it’s offbeat format. As a reading experience, it’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. It tells a morose domestic drama story about the shaky relationship between two neighboring families, but it’s filled with a variety of photos taken by different people and it uses footnotes after every chapter (which reads almost like a mini-story) like an academic work.
It was ultimately much less complicated than I thought it would be, and overall I thought the characters were very well-written. Unfortunately, the most compelling ones left me wanting more when the story ended on a predictably ambiguous and depressing note. The novella focuses on two well-off suburban families whose lives are drastically changed when one of the dads dies of a heart attack. The dead man’s heavyset and socially awkward son becomes increasingly sullen and dabbles in petty crime., and his daughter starts seeing the bad-boy neighbor son.
The wannabe bad boy permanently disfigures himself in a monumentally stupid accident, while his sweet-natured younger sister withdraws into her own private world, The parents are collectively dissatisfied and their lives are riddled with jealousy, adultery, and an all-consuming loneliness that comes with barely being seeing by the people who are supposed to love them. Although some readers might consider A Field Guide to the North American Family to be another interminable ‘rich white people problems’ drama, it’s scathing cynicism and fractured relationships all ring true and make it stand out from other similar stories.
I found it to be at it’s best when it frankly examined the characters’ uglier and more unsympathetic emotions, because every day real peoples’ minds of full of things they know they shouldn’t say and probably shouldn’t even think, but they’re such a big part of human nature whether or not anybody wants to admit to them. It also does a very good job of evoking feelings of loneliness and ‘otherness,’ particularly in it’s young characters. I don’t know if I’ll read anything else by this author in the near future because when he’s not writing novellas he seems to be writing massive time-consuming doorstops, but I would recommend this book to anybody who’s looking for something a little bit different and who likes family dramas sans the sentimentality.