A family of necessity
Leah Stewart’s fourth novel, following 2011’s Husband and Wife, opens as 28-year-old Eloise Hempel, newly hired as a history professor at Harvard, receives a phone call from her 11-year-old niece Theo in Cincinnati. Eloise’s sister, Rachel, and her husband have died in a crash while on vacation. Theo and her siblings, Josh, 9, and Claire, 2, had been staying with Francine, Eloise and Rachel’s mother, who somehow finds herself unable to make that difficult call herself.
Though she loves Boston, especially her plum job at Harvard, Eloise realizes she is the logical choice to raise her sister’s children in Cincinnati—with their familiar schools, their extracurricular activities, their friends.
The story then shifts to 2010, 17 years later. Eloise, Theo, Josh and Claire all live in Francine’s huge old house in Clifton, the Cincinnati neighborhood close to the university where Eloise now teaches. With the kids about to leave home, Eloise feels this is the perfect time to put the house on the market—maybe she could even move back to Boston at long last. But therein lies the snag, for the children, now grown, are all very attached to the house where they grew up as orphans. Unfortunately, none of them have the means to keep it.Theo feels the strongest—but still a student working on her dissertation, she has nothing to contribute to the bills. Josh dropped out of his band a year earlier, and has a mediocre job; Claire, a ballerina, is leaving soon for a position in New York City.
Stewart is a wonderful observer of family relationships, and she adroitly weaves the stories of Eloise and the children she’s raised—their work, their loves, their disappointments and dreams—while focusing on what ties families together, and what ultimately keeps those ties from breaking.