Author: Elizabeth H. Winthrop, 2008.
Genre: Contemporary. Family Drama.
Other Details: Paperback. 375 pages.
This novel is set in New England during the month of December in an unspecified year and focuses on the dynamics between Wilson and Ruth Carter and their eleven-year old daughter, Isabelle. Now the Carters are obviously fairly well off with a weekend retreat in the country and a posh Manhattan apartment. The only cloud in their lives is that Isabelle stopped speaking nine months previously. (OK I know some parents would count this a blessing). They naturally have sent her to doctors and psychiatrists but no medical condition has been identified and indeed the latest shrink branded her as a 'lost cause'.
Ruth is convinced that she is responsible, that her parenting skills were lacking or she didn't read the right 'how to' books. Wilson constantly comes up with strategies to encourage Isabelle to speak though to no avail. The headmistress of the private school that Isabelle attends has also been accommodating, allowing Isabelle to study from home. However, she gives Ruth an ultimatum that if Isabelle doesn't return to class and is speaking by January then she'll be expelled. This is a huge incentive for Ruth to find a new doctor and seeks to bond with Isabelle by going to a mother-daughter art class. Wilson seems less bothered about the school situation and begins to make plans for a family holiday in Africa after Christmas because Isabelle drew a picture of a lion on a paper napkin.
Overall I felt this was a novel about the power of withholding. Ruth and Wilson seem to have granted Isabelle all the power in the family by constantly dancing attendance on her and essentially enabling her silence. Why should she talk when she is getting her own way all the time and has the two of them wrapped around her finger? Ruth has even given up her career as a lawyer to look after Isabelle now she is not in school. Seriously, I thought they should have called on the services of Supernanny Jo Frost to sort out this situation. .
One incident that I found very effective was when they first meet their new country neighbours. The little boy of the family does not say anything and his father explains that he is is deaf and signs to communicate. Indeed, they have moved there so he can attend a nearby school for deaf/mute children. Rather embarrassed Ruth responds by saying "Isabelle doesn't speak much either'. I'm surprised that the little madam didn't curl up in shame for her attention-seeking antics in the face of someone who actually wanted to speak but could not. Instead, she goes off in a huff angry at her mother for being friendly to the newcomers and feeling manipulated.
It also felt that the author was too quick to dismiss there being any link between Isabelle's retreat into silence and the autism spectrum. That five child psychiatrists/psychologist decided Isabelle was essentially untreatable after each seeing her for only a month strikes me as unlikely and using terms like 'lost cause' also highly unprofessional. So was not convinced that the author really had researched the issue of someone choosing to be mute in any depth.
This was a selected book for a reading group and despite its modest length proved to be a hard slog. Still I really had to know the ending and wasn't about to cheat by reading the last chapter. While it is undoubtedly a well written book in terms of language and style, I'm not convinced that it quite deserved all the accolades heaped on it by the reviewer in The Times as quoted on its back cover. Winthrop is one of those writers who describes the day-to-day actions and thoughts of her characters minute detail such as their meal preparation. Frankly I found that I just didn't care and quickly lost patience with the parents and felt Isabelle really needed to get over herself. They just seemed in general rather over privileged and in need of a good dose of real life rather than the bubble of entitlement they existed in. Yet perhaps this was the writer's point.
There are no references to computers, cell phones or historical events meaning that the when, if not the where, of the story is uncertain. There is also a fairytale quality to some of the scenes both in the snowy countryside and the streets of Manhattan brilliant with Christmas lights and teeming with shoppers. Wilson constantly calls his daughter Belle, which evokes memories of Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps he does see his daughter as under an enchantment that he is trying to find some magical solution to break?
So yes, a book that overall left me with mixed feelings.