“Secrets are cancer to a family,” declares the outspoken matriarch played by Jane Fonda in the recent dramedy, “This Is Where I Leave You.” Author Jonathan Tropper adapted the screenplay from his amusing 2010 novel of the same name, in which a volatile pack of siblings are forced to endure a week at home together, the dying wish of their dad. The mourning ritual exposes a family-wide infestation of secrets, some benign, others not so much.
“Reunion,” Hannah Pittard’s fast-paced new novel, echoes Tropper’s premise and structure, but goes darker thematically. Kate Pulaski gets word in the opening scene that her father has shot himself on the back porch of his Buckhead condo. The call arrives as Kate, a washed-up screenwriter, finds herself stranded, literally and figuratively, on a runway in a storm-delayed airplane, worrying about her imminent divorce and empty bank account.
Kate describes her estranged father as “a despicable man” who treated her the worst among the “original” siblings, Elliot and Nell, kids from the first of his five marriages. She resists the visit home to Georgia for the “funeral nonsense,” another reminder of the old man’s many failures. Before the end of Chapter 1, you can almost smell the teachable moments coming.
Pittard, however, has other plans. The book takes a long interlude into dysfunction and tends to shy away from epiphanies, at least comforting ones. The reader’s initial sympathy for Kate gives way to confusion, then outright irritation. She claims to be the sort of person who feels guilty for not switching off her phone during flights, but her actions show a compulsion for breaking rules and lying about it.
Her soon-to-be ex-husband Peter, a therapist, gives his professional opinion that Kate’s true feelings “are buried under manure.” Reality can’t compete with the classic Hollywood script unfolding in her mind, reveries of skipping long taxi lines or pretending to be a new person on airplanes. Yet even in her fantasies, she sees herself as an actress who has forgotten her lines.
By the time Kate lands in Atlanta, she’s down to her last $5 and plastered on gin and tonics. It makes sense, at first, that she keeps her siblings in the dark about the divorce (another plot device in “This Is Where I Leave You”). Doing so would reveal her own infidelity and risk an honest-to-goodness comparison to her dad. “The thing about cheating,” she says, “… and this has nothing to do with my father…is that it’s easy. It’s the easiest thing in the world.”
Once the siblings let themselves into their father’s messy condo, new complications emerge. Various stepmothers and half siblings eventually begin arriving for the funeral, proving the earlier point that this “blended” family is anything but.
While Kate obviously loves Peter and fears the end of their marriage, her real terror dwells in losing his money. She admits to maxing out her credit cards on “clothes and shoes and booze and food.” The $20,000 she earned from selling a screenplay evaporated in months. “Debt?” she says. “It’s as easy as infidelity. It’s easier.”
Pittard (“The Fates Will Find Their Way”), who teaches fiction at the University of Kentucky, makes writing short, lively scenes look easy. “Reunion” maintains a narrative voice that’s conversational, modern and familiar, which makes the straightforward plot move forward even faster.
For bolder choices, look to the characters. Readers can’t help but pity the luckless narrator whose crummy travel day devolves into a public spectacle of grief. Within a few chapters, that compassion metastasizes into something more like contempt.
Being back in Georgia brings out an alarming vitriol in Kate. She sees Atlanta as a “giant, hideous city” and remarks on its “dueling cathedrals, their gaudiness on full display.” Her bitterness encompasses “all that is fake about the sweetness of the South,” which she associates with her shifty father (but not her own insincerity).
Contrary to the lesson she learned from watching “Love Story” at age 11, the jaded adult Kate has decided that “being in love means having a personal punching bag.” Relationships are just a free pass to act like the worst person possible.
With her cynicism and hypocrisy unmasked, the character of Kate becomes problematic: not dark enough to be called an antihero, yet difficult to root for. In a significant exchange, Elliot snaps, “Are we supposed to feel sorry for you?” It’s a question the novel leaves readers to ponder.
We never seriously doubt “Reunion” will deny its screenwriter narrator her Hollywood ending, even while she endures necessary lessons about film fantasies versus real life. But if secrets really are the stuff of cancer, this case may be too far advanced for chemo.