The disorder that lurks beneath the idyllic surface of Amercan suburbia is a familiar theme in fiction. Dan Pope updates this theme for the 21st Century in his well-crafted second novel, Housebreaking.
Set in the tony Connecticut suburb of Wintonbury (based on the author’s hometown of West Hartford), the novel opens with one family torn apart and another about to be. Benjamin Mandelbaum has moved back to his childhood home with his 84-year-old widower father, Leonard, after his wife has kicked him out of their house. Suffering in the lonely fog of his pending divorce, Ben discovers that a high school crush, Audrey Martin-Murray, has moved with her family to his neighborhood. Ben is even more unmoored when Leonard suffers a stroke and is hospitalized.
Trapped in a loveless marriage and grieving over the death of her son, Audrey is ripe for an affair. Ben concocts a clever ruse to lure Audrey and they begin an affair at his father’s home.
Audrey’s husband, Andrew, a type A lawyer who logs long hours at a large, prestigiuos law firm in Hartford, barely notices Audrey’s absences. Andrew is consumed by his own dalliance, an implausible attraction to a precocious young male associate at the firm. Neither Andrew nor Audrey pay much attention to their daughter, Emily. In the throes of despair over the loss of her brother, Emly hooks up with a neighborhood hood, who takes her along on burglaries and supplies her with pills to medicate her pain.
Over the course of a Thanksgiving holiday weekend that seems on the surface a normal, if tension filled time, everything comes to a head.
Pope’s message seems to focus on how families deal with pain and loss and how the random, unexpected events of life can shatter the calm equillibrium of the suburban dream. Leonard, easily the most likeable character, lives by the old school moral code. He is an honorable person with traditional values. Ben, though he’s been unfaithful to his wife, shows remorse and clings to the hope his wife will take him back. He still values his family. The Martin-Murrays are a different story. They deal with their problems by running away from them–finding solace in doomed affairs or, in the case of Emily, self-medicating.
Housebreaking is a well-paced story about the illusions of surbubia and the fairy-tale, storybook homes and neighbohoods that hide the pain of coping with real-life challenges.