A family blown apart by a terrorist bombing hardly seems the stuff of good literature, but Susan Richards Shreve fashions a disturbingly beautiful tale from this tragedy. The four McWilliams children spend their early years whisked around the world by their parents, James and Lucy McWilliams (known to each other as "Jaggers" and "Plum"), ex-Peace Corps veterans and all-around free spirits. June 11, 1974, alters the family forever, as the parents die in an explosion on an Italian train. From this point, Sam, the eldest child, assumes responsibility for his younger brother Oliver and their sisters, Charlotte and Julia. The novel traces their growth and Sam's increasingly tight grip on his family; the burden of protecting them becomes imbedded in his psyche, a mixture of paranoia and megalomania induced by childhood trauma. While his intentions are noble to protect his remaining siblings his obsessive control is frightening. They recognize Sam's neurosis, yet accede to his wishes: It is the only definition of family they know.
As adults, the McWilliams children form a comedy troupe called "Plum ∧ Jaggers," and produce skits. Achieving cult status, they sign a deal with NBC. Moving from their Washington home to New York, the family performs on a live weekly television show as Sam's slide into dementia gradually deepens. With the addition of a stranger stalking the McWilliamses on the streets of Manhattan, the story takes on an urgency that Shreve skillfully weaves into suspense.
Though the narrative itself engages from the opening pages, the characters are the novel's most impressive feature. Without indulging in sentiment or clichÅ½, Shreve imbues the McWilliams siblings with originality, personality, and distinct voices. They are a strange lot, no doubt, but entirely believable, and intensely interesting. Shreve's style is detached and concise, deftly sidestepping extraneous exposition.
Plum ∧ Jaggers pulls off the neat trick of blending tragedy and comedy without the taint of melodrama. Relentlessly eloquent, witty, and sensitive, this novel reveals how four individuals pursue their lives after catastrophe. As the specter of their murdered parents looms over them, the McWilliams siblings demonstrate that healing is a process, a journey best undertaken with family.
Mike Paulson teaches English at Penn State University.