A thoroughly engrossing story of a woman's search for family and self, vaguely reminiscent of an Anne Tyler tale, The Ghost at the Table plays out over the course of a holiday weekend. Cynthia Fiske is cajoled into traveling back East to spend Thanksgiving with her older sister Frances and her family. The kicker is that their long-estranged father will be joining them. Cynthia has not seen him in years, and harbors something like disdain for him, mostly because of his actions after their mother's death. As we travel back to Cynthia's childhood, we are there. Suzanne Berne brings the difficult years to life keenly and effortlessly. In dealing with their mother's long illness and eventual death, the then-teenaged Fiske sisters have troubled, conflicting feelings for their parents and each other. Cynthia's current work as a historical novelist who writes about the families of famous people adds more fodder for this theme, as she shares what her research has taught her. Does anyone really have a normal family? Her real family is a motley crew, complete with Goth niece and anxiety-ridden (dare we say OCD) sister Frances. Their father, incapacitated by a stroke, can no longer articulate his opinions, once so forcefully held.
All comes to a head after Thanksgiving dinner. When Cynthia breaks into a tirade, it starts to look like she's losing it. Things get out of hand, and our friendly protagonist (who, after all, only longs for a decent cup of coffee in the morning) is left feeling a bit ostracized. This is a finely crafted piece, resplendent in characterization, setting and voice. The story wraps up in a seemingly macabre fashion that is only hinted at in the epilogue. The only flaw is that the ending is rather abrupt, like a needle being pulled too fast off the record. Berne's debut novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood, won the Orange Prize. Her latest work, though not quite as finely tuned, is hard to put down. Linda White writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.