By Miriam Toews
My desire to seek out dysfunctional family fiction in books or movies is pretty limited. First, there’s no need to if you already have one in real life (har har). Second, when you do feel a need, it’s usually because it’s comforting to know there are families out there that are way more dysfunctional than yours. Third, it’s hard to find dysfunctional family dramas that are both good and funny. So I was curious about The Flying Troutmans due to the fairly positive reviews it’s been getting.
After the death of her parents, Hattie Troutman managed to escape to Paris to make a life for herself. One day she gets an emergency call from Winnipeg. It’s her 11 year-old niece, Thebes, calling to say that her mother, Min, had another breakdown and is back at the psych ward. This time it’s serious: Min doesn’t want to see her kids anymore and she wants to die. Hattie comes back home to become the reluctant guardian of Thebes and Logan, her 15 year-old nephew. With Min institutionalized and her length of stay indeterminate, Hattie is more than a little freaked out by her new responsibilities. Impulsively, she embarks on a road trip with her niece and nephew, driving across the States in their beat-up Ford Aerostar in search of their estranged father.
TFT reminded me of another Canadian novel called Skinny . Both stories are about a family torn apart by mental illness (be it anorexia or depression), and both stories focus on the relationship between two sisters: the older being the afflicted one and the younger struggling to get away from the big sis's destructive influence and have a normal life.
Where Skinny was self-conscious, serious and unsympathetic, I found TFT to be fairly heartfelt, engaging and even outright hilarious. There were self-conscious moments for sure, but my overall enjoyment overcame some of its flaws. TFT’s humour also reminded me very much of the Spellman series by Lisa Lutz. You know, the kind of hilarity spawned from an eccentric family dynamic that’s deeply dysfunctional yet also loving at heart. The comedic bantering was so familiar, I wouldn’t be surprised if Toews was already acquainted with The Spellman Files (FYI, Isabel “Izzy” Spellman is also a not-quite-grownup 28-year-old woman).
That being said, Toews nevertheless has a distinctive writing style which can be described as quirky but not annoyingly so. However the technique of using no quotations for dialogue seems to be proliferating amongst contemporary authors, and TFT is no exception. I don’t really mind it so much, but as a trend it’s starting to get a little worn.
I gave her a nudge under the table and passed her a paper bag to wipe the stuff off her face. She put it over her head and drew a face on it, blind. Big cartoon eyes and a mouth where the nose should be. I told her to go get the Frisbee, and without removing the bag she stumbled and weaved and crashed her way to the van. She finally took the bag off her head and she and I threw the Frisbee around for a while before Logan joined in… he decided that we should play Frisbee through the van, with both side doors open and Thebes sitting on the seat in the van. She was entirely down with that and Logan had a blast whipping the Frisbee inches from her face, until he accidentally hit her and her nose bled, she cried, he apologized, said she was stand-up for playing the game, apologized again, and again, she forgave him with a karate kick to the ‘nads, which he handled with an off-hand grace, said he deserved it, the old people shook their heads like bobblehead dolls and we all hit the road once again.
TFT definitely isn’t for everyone. Reviewers from major rags generally disliked TFT mainly because they found the characters and situations improbable and/or trivial. One NY Times reviewer blames “the disagreeable company and the vapid conversation.”
Toews’s penchant for summarized dialogue becomes tedious and distancing, turning scenes into virtual digests, and her inability, or unwillingness, to describe or contextualize — or even to gaze long upon — the passing countryside, is a real handicap when you’re writing a road novel. ‘I drove through the park as fast as I could, which was excruciatingly slowly because the road was narrow and curvy and park rangers were all over the place. It was all desert and sky and scrubby bushes and some oddly shaped trees.’ And that’s it for the spectacular Joshua Tree National Park.
I beg to differ. I actually found the LACK of descriptive flourishes refreshing! Not every writer can pull off prosaic descriptions of stunning landscapes without boring or annoying some readers and this style wouldn’t suit The Flying Troutmans anyway. I don’t necessarily want to be bogged down by exposition when I just want to enjoy the spirited misadventures of an ad hoc family unit and find out what happens next.
And a rather feeble-minded Telegraph reviewer wonders why “it never occurs to Hattie that she could help Logan and Thebes in far more practical ways than taking a road trip.” She found the novel amusing and fluently written, but felt manipulated because as a reader she was forced to “suspend disbelief until every imaginative muscle burns with the effort”. Does this person only read nonfiction and very dry literature or what?
But many open-minded reviewers were more positive, with some female readers absolutely loving it. Perhaps it’s similar to how women have a tendency to find the quirky talkativeness of The Gilmore Girls endearing while many men (and some close-minded women) find it grating. But if you’re one of those who do get TFT, it is a worthwhile read for sure.
As one Quill and Quire reviewer puts it: “This is a book that builds its complexity so subtly and imperceptibly that the inevitable sense of deep engagement feels almost like sleight of hand.” Cuz once you get past the charming humour and wacky veneer, there is also some real emotion to be found there.