With knowing humor and sure-handed storytelling, Janet Peery reveals a family at its best and worst, with old wounds and new, its fractures and feuds, and yet its unbreakable bonds.
‘The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs,’ by Janet Peery, isn’t so much a novel as a catalog of the dysfunctional people in one family. The plot is slow and torturous to find and follow, but the people are excessive in their realness. I know the people in this book better than I know myself. Making the characters so realistic is not a bad thing per se, but this time it was at the cost of the plot.
The audience was driven through the lives of the Campbell family down a long windy road with many distractions in a very slow car. Hattie and Abel Campbell chronicled the various painful relationships with their six children. Nick passed away in his twenties. Daddy’s favorite, the one most likely to follow in his footsteps as a judge and lawyer. Next was daughter Doro, mom’s favorite because of their similar placid natures. Jesse came along with his docile personality as a peripheral in the family, followed in quick succession by Clairbell and Gideon who spent their lives seeking their parents’ attention and approval. Billy, the baby, was at first a gift to the family with his bubbly grandiose personality, but also the final piece of the puzzle meant to crack the family in two.
While no real plot to lay a finger on, the book does focus heavily on the two men who created chronic problems in the household. First Abel with his hard-headed approach and inability to put the law aside to show affection. Then, Billy, a constant drain on the family with his flamboyant personality and a deep need for attention and pharmaceuticals. His inability to care for himself long-term drove off his partner and his parents against each other. Billy’s siblings tried interventions, rehabs, everything available in their small midwest town to try and relieve the burden Billy put on their parents.
Abel spends the majority of the two hundred and fifty plus pages dying. He refused to give up without a fight, living to a ripe old age to antagonize his wife and children. Hattie, indestructible in her forgiveness and domestic duties, ran the family with cooking, tolerance, and favorites. She wanted to treat each of her children with the same love but was incapable of providing what each child needed. As the book progressed the family aged. The children were close to retirement ages and yet sibling rivalry and competition was alive and thriving.
The pages were filled with descriptions, segues into the mindsets of the grown children, likes, dislikes, neurosis’, surroundings, pretty much anything to avoid the storyline. There is such thing as character development and then there is this book that takes understanding the inner psyche of a person two a whole new platform. The novel is aptly named the nature of wrongs because the sheer amount of flaws in each person is almost embarrassing. Snippets of a plot weaved between the rambling.
A dog named Toodles set Hattie and Abel’s relationship on edge. Clairbell, the least favorite, had a constant need for attention and one-up-manship. Billy flitted from one drug to another like a bumble bee flitted to flowers. Abel forced his strong views on the family and made life interesting, to say the least, for his wife and children. Amidst all the half plots that formed the lifetime of this family, very few other people graced the pages of the book. Here and there were shreds of other people threading through the lives of the Campbell’s. Of course, Hattie and Abel had grandchildren, vague comments alluded to such, and they all must have had friends and co-workers to commiserate with, yet very little mention of other people surrounded this almost incestuous and self-centered family.
Besides the minor ongoing backstory and the major past stories, it’s as if the author had a bunch of well-formed characters she could not fit in a plot. So she created this book without any real storyline to allow the characters a chance to roam free, out of her head once and for all. Even Nick, the child who died, his story died off, from one chapter to the next, along with his character in preference to descriptions that held the story back instead of farthing the story along.
The most agonizing issue with Peery’s writing style is her need to break up conversations with so many descriptors I needed to backtrack on a regular basis to figure out what question someone had answered. In the middle of a conversation is not the time, nor the place, to talk about an old memory and make your audience feel as if they have lost their ability to remember anything. Find a road and stay on it until the destination is reached!
Obviously, I have issues with this novel but it is not without merit. Peery’s ability to put together beautiful picturesque sentences is without question. She can paint a scene down to the smallest bit of fluff floating in a breeze. She has a respectful way of painting Christians, Hattie, uncharacteristic of this generation. The sheer catalog of issues this family contends with proves her lavish imagination. I wish more of her imagination had spread to telling us a story instead of introducing us to people.
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