Shari Goldhagen’s Family and Other Accidents begins typically. Parents die, brothers avoid discussing the fact, and in a perfectly American Pie-style re-imagining, younger brother resists counsel from older, bed-hopping brother, Jack, on the ways of women and ends up humiliated after a tryst with his girlfriend. That’s, of course, if you consider winding up publicly pantsless in a hallway, gripping a used condom simple humiliation. It’s enough to scar the already delicate lad. But Goldhagen has other plans for 15-year-old Connor Reed. He is, in fact, anything but your standard Jim Levenstein character, tripping through adolescence hilariously and heartwarmingly. Instead, the loss of his parents assists Connor towards rapid maturation. In a matter of just a few years, Jack will still be bed-hopping, while Connor will be a married man with two kids.
Connor’s coming of age, in turn, is anything but typical. And Goldhagen’s principle question as his story unfolds is, just how much of what we choose (and do not choose) to do with our later lives is representational of true adulthood? Does marriage make us grown-ups? Do kids? Jobs or money? Hot lawyer Jack’s got the years and the success to give him an outward appearance of the successful adult, while idealistic, impressionable Connor makes rather quick decisions about building his own family while barely out of high school. So who’s the real grown up, and what does it all mean?
Goldhagen’s short book hightails it through 25 years of the brothers’ existence, through marriages, separations, affairs, children, good and bad choices. Her brothers aren’t always likable, sometimes they’re downright despicable, but their stories remain engrossing because we’ve been there. We’re all products of our decisions and former actions, good or bad. For a first-time novelist, emerging from entertainment “journalism” with the likes of National Enquirer and Celebrity Living (she recently told Gothamist her career highlight was getting flipped off by Britney Spears), Goldhagen nails everything—place, voice, development. There might be times when these characters and their situations seem too depressing, and the women tend to appear far too put upon, but just when you think she might be edging towards new-millennium-uber-funk fantasy, she pulls out the sort of sharp people-observation that makes a reader sit up and reach for the highlighter.
Goldhagen is at her sharpest when digging into those notions of adulthood and the meaning of maturity. Connor spends much of the first quarter of the book as a teen and young adult. He doesn’t view Jack as particularly parentlike, not that he’s too finely in touch with what a parent does. And he resists Jack as a brother, too. Goldhagen hints that Connor desires a tighter bond to Jack, but Jack’s inability to see the world beyond his own needs, effectively pushes Connor away. When Connor sleeps with his high school girlfriend for the first time in the book’s opening chapter, following that condom-in-hand moment, Connor opens the door to conversation: “I had sex with Jenny,” he says, to which his brother replies, referring to the condom: “You still have to throw that away.”
Losing his virginity becomes an issue of cleaning up, rather than some crash-bang moment of adult discovery. Connor is privy, now, to a large part of Jack’s lifestyle and yet feels unchanged. Perhaps marriage will change him? A wife and kids might make him feel on par with Jack, or his parents, or just to feel like something other than “Jack’s (kid) brother”?
Frustrating as it is to watch Connor stumble into maturity, we find that Jack’s no great guy and is himself stumbling. He can’t grow up—even with all the means in the world, he’s still a playboy who’s unjustifiably playing around. Or perhaps it’s the manner in which he plays around—sleazily and skeevily, and, well, immaturely. In any case, Jack’s no “real” grown up, at least as far as Connor view of such a thing goes. So, the question rises—are any of us? Goldhagen explores the adolescent line-crossing from Jack’s perspective in this cleverly spot-on observation:
And he wonders where that line of youth resides and how he stumbled across to the other side, a place where the stars of sitcoms and romantic comedies are now a few years his junior instead of his senior.
As Jack fights to retain his youth, Connor sprints from it. And it’s Jack’s resistance to parent his brother (whether or not it’s his true responsibility) that contributes to Connor’s decision to fast track his own growing-up process, becoming a father and husband while barely out of his teens. “I want to have kids while I’m still young enough to play with them,” Connor irrationally tells Jack. Irrationally—until we realize it’s not Jack’s path that Connor’s concerned he will follow, but his own parents’.
The scene here, too, is key to dissecting the Connor/Jack relationship. Jack decides only after Connor’s baby-announcement to become all parentlike to Connor. Jack’s good at questioning Connor’s decisions, not so good at guiding him towards or through them. But that’s the whole point. It’s a chicken-egg scenario made real—when do we grow up? When did we stop being kids? When we were guided as kids by our 30-year-old parents, weren’t they just kids themselves? Goldhagen convincingly and concisely explores these questions. The results, for her characters at least, are frightening. But they’re also scarily familiar.