One of the most difficult, damaging, and dizzying experiences someone can go through is the sudden separation from a deeply imbedded and lengthy marriage (especially if children are involved). To have spent several years, if not decades, cultivating a bond with your partner, extended family, and possibly even offspring, only to have it all fractured, if not totally lost, in a fraction of the same time would take a serious toll on the emotions and mentality of anyone. After all, not only are the people you’ve grown so close to swiftly removed, but your property and possessions may be gone too, resulting in a complete overhaul of your lifestyle, outlook on life, and self-esteem (at least for the time being).
It’s with these circumstances that Housebreaking, the newest novel by Dan Pope (In the Cherry Tree, 2003), begins, as we meet Benjamin Mandelbaum, a man whose “wife kicks him out of their house, (so) he returns to his childhood home in Connecticut to live with his widowed father, [Leonard].” Due to this, he becomes “lost, lonely, and [doubtful about] everything he felt he knew about marriage and love…” Along the way, both he and his father become reacquainted with women from the past (so there’s a parallel arc between them), with a series of beneficial (and detrimental) events culminating in “an explosive Thanksgiving weekend that changes their lives forever.”
With such intriguing circumstances, the only real question is, does it up to its ambitions? Unfortunately, the answer is yes and no, as some very good attributes are undermined by a few odd structural and situational choices, as well as a lack of appropriate reactions in several instances.
The story is billed as a “powerful, provocative, and psychologically gripping [book that] explores the ways that two families—and four lives—can all too easily veer off track, losing sight of everyone, and everything, they once held dear.” While this is certainly what Pope attempts here, he never really achieves it for a handful of reasons: the characters don’t seem to be given appropriate weight; it’s difficult to empathize with any of them because they sort of deserve what happens to them; and two specific instances feel forced, out of place, and perhaps especially pointless.
Rather than display complexity and reason in dealing with the tumultuousness of their lives, these figures appear fairly unmoved by it all. For example, in contemplating the separation from his family, Benjamin concludes that he’ll “get his freedom, a chance to be himself again. Judy would find someone else…” Furthermore, his entitlement results in disappointment that he can’t find any single women to sleep with mere days after being thrown out. Lastly, he even blames Judy for his sexual indiscretions during their marriage, as she was dating Benjamin and someone else simultaneously during the early part of their relationship.
In general, one gets the sense that although Benjamin says he’s upset about the estrangement, he really doesn’t care, as he whines about, rather than fights for, his family. Because of this, it doesn’t really matter what happens to him.
Sadly, this is more or less the sentiment for all of the major players. Without spoiling too much, suffice it to say that both Benjamin’s old high school friend, Audrey Martin, and her daughter, Emily, end up doing despicable things without much thought or feeling; actually, they’re unbelievably careless and naïve, so it’s not surprisingly (or troubling) when things don’t go as planned. Once again, they become entangled in situations that are quite momentous, yet it’s difficult to respond in any other way than to think, Well, that’s what you get, isn’t it? You should’ve known better. Honestly, the only two sincere people here are Leonard and his new love interest, Terri (both of whom are, to Pope’s credit, extremely funny and endearing).
As ultimately underwhelming as those plot points are, though, at least they’re engaging and logical, which can’t be said for the completely ridiculous and wasteful section spent with Audrey’s husband, Andrew. Used a catalyst for the figurative shit to hit the fan, he’s portrayed as an incredibly smart, striving, and resourceful lawyer whose bland nature and career-driven selfishness push away his family. Now, these traits make him an unlikeable yet rational individual, which is fine; the issues come when he does things that are extremely obligatory, baffling, and uncharacteristic. In other words, it’s downright unbelievable that he would do what he does, as there’s no set-up for it, and once it all happens, Pope abandons it. Also, it’s tonally off from the rest of the book, feeling more like American Psycho (without the violence) than Housebreaking. All in all, it’s essentially a repetitive MacGuffin that undermines the believability of the story.
Going back to the structure of the work, Pope divides things up according to family, with each main character getting his or her own chapter. Obviously, this format has been used countless times in all facets of entertainment, so there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. For the most part, Housebreaking uses it well too, as it manages some cleverness in showing different perspectives leading up to the same incidents. However, there’s one flash forward at the end of a segment that feels very random and underdeveloped. Pope spends a good amount of time exploring what happens in the present with this character and then skips several years into the future and offers only a few paragraphs about where they’ll be and with whom. It’s an attempt to be touching and profound, but it comes off as amateurish, disconnected, and flat out bizarre.
For all of its problems, there are a few bright spots. Aside from the aforementioned humor, Pope generally has a knack for writing strong personalities and dialogue. While the ways in which these characters treat their lives may not feel authentic, they’re still fairly multilayered and intriguing people, so readers do feel drawn to them. Along the same lines, Housebreaking is a quick read, with strong pacing and descriptions culminating in a dense world readers feel enveloped in. All in all, the journey is gripping even though the payoff is light.
In the end, Housebreaking is a sufficiently enjoyable ride that simply features many flaws. Sure, one can easily put him or herself in the shoes of these characters, but therein lies one of the major problems: readers would surely make more rational and mature decisions (not to mention avoid getting themselves in these predicaments in the first place). Likewise, some of the arcs feel useless, and the ending is too quick and neat, without the complex ramifications that would make Pope’s themes feel more arresting and affective. There was a lot of potential here, but only some of it is realized, making Housebreaking a largely unsuccessful effort overall.