It’s Christmas Eve, 1967, at the McDonald’s house in Australia. The children, Deborah, Robert, James and Meredith, ages 6 to 12 are helping their mother, Rosemarie, decorate the family tree. Their father, Alex is out doing something with the garden. Unknown to the children and ignored by Alex, Rosemarie is very discontent in her marriage. She feels that by getting married to a much older man at 17, she has missed out on her youth and at 30, she deserves more. She wants to design and make clothes but if she stays in Australia she will never get the opportunity. Alex and her friends and neighbors think that she should just settle down and stop dreaming. Rosemarie gets the opportunity to return to England on Christmas Eve and walks out the door telling the children she’s off to get lights for the tree.
Forty years later, the children are grown and have families and lives of their own. Deborah is married and has one daughter. She is driven to perfection and has risen high in the ministry she works for. Her husband, Angus is a local lawyer who is happy with his small practice. Their daughter sometimes feels more grown up than her parents. Deborah’s marriage is having problems but she’s so focused on her work, she doesn’t see them. Robert has obsession issues that his wife and two daughters just accept and help him with. Robert has been promoted to the principal of the school where he works and finds that this position suits his personality well. James is an artist. He’s married to Silver who is older than him. She’s also his art dealer and has plenty of money. They have no children but love to see the other’s children. Meredith has issues. She is unmarried and has a 16-year-old son. She works as a bartender and has an issue with alcohol.
Deborah is the first to notice that Alex seems to be forgetting things. She calls a family meeting and it is decided that Alex needs tests to find out what is going on. They find that he has moderate dementia. Deborah is all for putting him in a home while the rest would like him to stay in his own home for as long as possible. Unknown to the rest, Meredith starts taking care of their father. This causes some problems later.
During this same time period, James and Silver are in England for an art exhibit. There Silver locates James’s mother and they go to meet her. They find a woman who knows what she did was wrong and wants to get to know her children. With everything going on with Alex, James keeps putting off telling his siblings that he has meet with their mother. When he does tell them, he knows that fireworks will happen.
This book shares the lives of the McDonald family over the space of a little more than a year. They retain problems from their childhood and are having to deal with them. They also have to deal with an older parent that many people have to do as well as meeting a parent they haven’t seen in 40 years. Deborah likes to be in control of things but what happens when she takes her husband for grant and he looks elsewhere. Meredith has a son who has given her an ultimatum; get sober or I’m gone. When Alex can’t remember where he is, can they figure out a way to keep Deborah happy and Alex in familiar surroundings?
The characters are all well developed. You get to know each of their quirks and habits so you can almost guess how they are going to react to certain situations. James is much more easy going than his siblings and hate to cause problems. Though he knows he has to tell his siblings that he has meet their mother, he puts it off for as long as he can as to not cause trouble. Meredith hates to face up to reality. She insists her father is fine until she is forced to accept he isn’t as fine as she’d like him to be. All of them are exposed to the reader and no secrets are left.
The situations are similar to ones that others may go through. Many families have to deal with what to do with an older parent who can’t stay alone. Due to the high numbers of divorce, many children grow up without two parents. How do you deal with finding a parent who left when you were a child? Deborah finds that even marriages that you think are solid can fall apart as she deals with her own marriage and its problems. And children of divorce may feel pain and turn to alcohol or drugs to dull it. Meredith’s struggle to face the pain and alcohol’s control over her is felt by many. As the McDonald’s work through this year, we can see situations in our own lives mirrored there.
And as we follow the McDonald family, we hope for solutions that bring the family closer together instead of tearing it apart. We know that no miracle will happen but watch for little pieces of hope and understanding.
A new voice in the tradition of Anne Tyler and Anita Shreve
Christmas Eve 1967: the night the lives of the McDonald children, Deborah, Robert, James, and Meredith, changed forever. Th eir mother, Rosemarie, told them she was running out to buy more lights for the tree. Instead, she boarded a plane bound for London, leaving the children with their father and the gnawing question: Why did their mother abandon them?
Over the years the siblings have become practiced in concealing their pain, remaining close into adulthood and forming their own families. But long-closed wounds are reopened and secrets that each sibling has locked away come to light, as their father progresses into dementia and James encounters Rosemarie after nearly forty years of her absence. Veitch's family portrait reveals the joys and sorrows, the complexity and ambiguity of family life, and poignantly probes what it means to love and what it means to leave.