Saturday 28 July 2018

A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovits   {Reviewed by STELLA}
The Essingers are landing en masse in New York. First to arrive are the parents, Bill and Liesel, end-career academics, flying in from Arizona. Paul, their New York son is insistent that his wife Dana collects them from the airport despite the inconvenience to their child’s routine and her discomfort at being the first to greet his parents. Next, Jean, the youngest, flipping from understanding to irritable, arrives from London carrying a secret that she wishes to offload. Then Nathan, the eldest and successful law academic, arrives with his two girls in tow. And finally there's the emotional middle child, Susie, with her eldest son Ben, waiting to be judged and sidelined. The siblings arrive over the weekend, as they have for a least a decade, to watch Paul play tennis in the US Open. He’s a professional, semi-successful, top-100 player but he’s peaked (lower than expected) and is on his way down. He wants out and is planning his retirement at 33, much to the disappoint of Bill, and his plans to move to Texas are a surprise to his wife. Benjamin Markovits takes the Essinger family, Jewish and German, with their migrant, working-class backgrounds (Bill’s uncle founded a grocery chain, which started with humble beginnings in lower New York), their successes - academic, sporting and financial - and exposes them down to the core. In doing so he exposes the granular details of contemporary American society, with its prejudices, intolerances, politics, passions, expectations and hypocrisies. Markovits is never polemic or obvious. He keeps the palette small: a family with all its quibbles and care, stuck together, without space to breathe (just as family gatherings can be), over a short period of time - a weekend in New York. The novel moves from Friday night through to Monday morning in an unrelenting and sometimes affectingly repetitive pattern, culminating in all sitting court-side at the first match. Cleverly written, the detailed scenarios dig deep into minutiae as the family traipse around New York and sit around the table eating, arguing, reliving their childhoods and catching up. The viewpoint segues with ease from one character to the next, giving equal weighting and sympathy to all the family members. All the petty emotions are there, alongside the meaningful ones. Liesel wants to retire and move to New York - they are even looking at apartments (Nathan has organised these) - Bill has no intention of leaving Texas - a place where he feels free of his family past. Nathan is considering a move into political bureaucracy and his usually self-assured confidence is being buffeted by doubt and by Jean’s righteousness - or is she right? Jean is at a loss - unhappy but fooling herself that her life is finally on a grown-up trajectory. Susie, the child who gave up her career for children, is constantly looking for approval. Paul, focused on the match ahead, is increasingly remote. This is a story about family, what holds it together, the common threads and experiences that bind each to the other, the shared histories and the past that defines the generations that follow. Markovits uses the Essingers to explore and expose pre-Trump upper-middle-class America and reveal the cracks that can spread through a ‘happy’ family (or a contented society). A Weekend in New York will make you engage with the finest detail but leave you thinking widely. 

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