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 A Perfect Explanation for a most dytsfunctional family

Talk about a dysfunctional family!!! Sybil, Joan and Enid and Douglas, Fagus and Finetta and Ian, stumbling through the pages of Eleanor Anstruther’s perfectly-attuned novel, A Perfect Explanation. The narrative pivots around aristocratic Enid, who marries middle-class Douglas more to spite her mother than because she loves him. Raising their children while disdaining Douglas turns into a dreadful burden for Enid. She suffers severely from post-partum depression, especially after their third child is born. That depression leads to increasingly neurotic behavior that in turn leads to family disruption, trauma, and dysfunction.

If all this sounds too painful and negative, please don’t stop reading. In truth, A Perfect Explanation is a very good read. The story begins in 1964, with an elderly Enid in a nursing home and her daughter, Finetta, preparing for a weekly visit. This time, however, Finetta will bring her brother Ian, who hasn’t communicated with their mother for twenty-five years. We learn in the first chapter that this disjuncture exists, but it takes the entire novel to clarify what caused the irreparable rift.

Almost immediately, the narrative retreats to 1921. Step by excruciating step, we follow Enid through the 1920s. Occasionally A Perfect Explanation returns to 1964, prefacing the awful visit that will occur in the novel’s final pages, but the heart of the action happens during the early years of Enid and Douglas’s marriage when their children were young and Enid was struggling.

I’m not sure I can say that Enid has any redeeming features at all, but Eleanor Anstruther has created a multi-dimensional human being whose presence overshadows everyone who interacts with her. Even at Hawthorne Christian Science House, where nurses and caregivers fuss over a cranky and frail Enid, preparing her for her offsprings’ visit, the elderly woman dominates each scene. It’s interesting to analyze that passive-aggressive dominance, particularly as it resonates from her girlhood to her old age. The woman who takes to her bed after her third child is born, the woman who runs from her loveless marriage, the woman who alternates speaking harshly and then covering up her true feelings, who confronts, retreats, and confronts anew, is a classic case of what today we call bipolar disorder. Wholly functional at times, insanely dysfunctional at others. Interesting, too, is how Enid’s behavior affects other people. Her mother, her sister, her husband, her children, and even her caregivers are all drawn into Enid’s orbit and then spit out in ways often accompanied by aftertastes unpleasant and unwholesome.

Even so, A Perfect Explanation is delicious. As I’ve written elsewhere in “Bookin’ with Sunny,” I tend to avoid memoirs and novels featuring dysfunctional people. This one, however, presents intriguing human beings caught up in a plot that is served in tantalizing morsels. The enigma of Ian’s estrangement from his mother keeps the reader puzzling. Anstruther drops hints but never does so in a heavy-handed way. She reveals just enough to lead the reader in different directions, avoiding full revelations until the bitter end. A Perfect Explanation ends with an Epilogue that I surely didn’t see coming. Reading that final chapter perfectly punctuates all that has come before. If for no other reason, this novel is a fascinating read.  –  Ann Ronald

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