Sue Guiney explores the tangled roots of a family, how children’s actions impact on parents and how the actions of parents affect children, although with more subtlety than Larkin’s “This be the Verse”.
Ageing Grace narrates her story linearly, starting with her sense of rootlessness and meeting the man who became her husband. That rootlessness is significant. Her parents have roots in Russia, she was brought up in New York, moves to Boston and is able to uproot the family to London at short notice and no thought to consequences for her children as she fails to appreciate their roots to their childhood home of Boston.
Grace’s story is interweaved with her middle-aged son John’s. A theoretical physicist, John’s story doesn’t follow a linear pattern, but moves forward and backward. As a teenager he didn’t understand why his mother moved them suddenly from Boston to London when she discovered their father was having an affair. His older sister, who was at college, refused to visit them in London, until his mother insisted. His sister’s journey ended in a plane crash leaving her without sight in one eye, further damaging the siblings’ relationship with their mother. John lectures at Boston University but feels unsettled, as if his roots aren’t really there at all. A contact offers John the chance of a sabbatical in Moscow. Can a return to the family’s original roots help John find his own place and peace?
Sue Guiney draws both main characters with empathy and deftly avoids sentimentality. Both characters are aware that the central mother and son relationship is tangled and both seek explanations. But neither seek justification. Grace’s mothering instinct told her to move the family away from Boston to keep the family together and protect them from the consequences of her husband’s affair. She doesn’t blame her husband, but accepts that it had a bigger impact on her children than she had allowed at the time. John comes to look at the move through adult eyes and comes to understand you can either let problems rooted in childhood tangle up your adult life or untangle them.
The novel’s strength lies in Sue Guiney’s subtlety. Her characters are allowed to tell their stories and the reader is not manipulated into sympathising with either. Sue Guiney trusts the readers to draw their own conclusions.