by Susan Isaacs
I cannot honestly say that my failure to date to have read Susan Isaacs was really nagging at me, but when the publisher offered me a chance to review the galley of her latest, I jumped on it. I knew I was well and truly overdue. And what a pleasure this introduction proved to be. Not because it’s some major literary work; simply because it entertained me. Goldberg Variations captured my interest early with its cleverness and humor and kept me hooked through a rapid read.
I should mention that I am listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations as I type this review—a clever title for a novel about the dysfunctional Goldberg family. Other than the play on the name, is there a deeper connection to the Bach? I don’t know. Wikipedia tells me that “In music, a variation is a formal technique where material is repeated in an altered form. The changes may involve harmony, melody, counterpoint, rhythm, timbre, orchestration, or any combination of those.” Something about that feels resonant to family interactions and the repeated mistakes we tend to make in our interactions with those we love… But perhaps I’m stretching.
No, it’s another classic that may be the seed of this family dramedy. As alluded in the novel’s description, Isaac owes a debt to Shakespeare’s King Lear. She doesn’t stretch the connection much beyond the barest premise. Her monarch is Gloria Garrison, whose kingdom is Glory, Inc., a lucrative and thriving makeover business. Approaching eighty, Gloria finds herself estranged from everyone she was ever close to. She has no obvious heir. With some distaste, she flies the three adult grandchildren she hasn’t seen in over a decade from New York to Sante Fe and tells them:
“I will choose one of you—only one—to come to Sante Fe, learn everything I have to teach about Glory, and inherit the business. I don’t believe in partnerships or co-anything. So no cousin duos, no brother-sister act. One of you will get Glory. The other two will get…nothing.”
Does Gloria sound harsh? You don’t know the least of it! More on her in a moment. Back to the proposition above. When Lear threw down this proposition, it led to murder and madness. Happily, things aren’t that grim here. There is a great deal of humor at the heart of this novel, and much of that comes through the internal voices of the central characters. The novel is told through the alternating points of view of Gloria and the three grandkids, siblings Daisy and Matt, and their cousin Raquel. I found these alternating POVs a really effective way to tell the tale, to get into each of their heads as their weekend-long reunion evolves.
As you may have gathered by now, this is a character-driven rather than plot-driven novel. And at the very heart of it is Gloria—and make no mistake, she’s a monster, but a frequently amusing monster:
“Not that I’m prejudiced, but I never liked short women. All too often they wrapped every work and act of theirs with cuteness. They’d say Oooh when Oh would do. They’d pin back their hair with tiny plastic barrettes as if God had not created taste. They’d stand too close to you and stare at you with their heads back, like you were a human Mt. Rushmore. True, there was a minority of shorties who shunned cute. Those were the dangerous one you have to keep your eye on all the time. They were like those tiny sharks a diver asks himself about—These little things aren’t the ones that bite, are they?—in the instant before his arm gets ripped off his body.”
In addition to family drama, Isaacs is commenting on a number of other character issues: social standing, religious identity, female empowerment, prejudice, and more. These issues are woven throughout the tale in a reasonably natural way. And at the story’s very core is the issue of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Is the novel’s ending realistic? Probably not. And yet, I had absolutely no problem with the novel’s conclusion. As noted above, Gloria’s not a very realistic character—or at least I hope she isn’t. But Isaac entertained me and didn’t make me work too hard. Goldberg Variations was a great introduction to her work, and I shall look forward to exploring further.