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BOOK REVIEW

The delicate lines that crisscross lives

Maryann McFadden's second novel moves from New Jersey to Cape Cod. Maryann McFadden's second novel moves from New Jersey to Cape Cod.
By Janet Simmons
Globe Staff / August 26, 2009

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Claire Noble is your next-door neighbor, your daughter’s high school teacher, your divorced book club friend. She’s the 40ish co-worker who can’t meet for drinks Friday because she’s driving her mother to church bingo. Coffee on Tuesday? Nope, she takes her granddaughter to art class. Oh, and then she’s grocery shopping, meeting her fiancé for a quickie, then helping her parents pack up their house before their move.

Just as you’re about to give up on selfless-to-a-fault Claire, as well as Maryann McFadden’s chick-lit prose, both of them surprise you. Claire steps out of character, and McFadden takes some risks, each of them feeling your exasperation somehow. Claire begins to own the blame for the pathetic patterns in her life, and realizes it’s time to change, to stop the martyrdom, to be selfish even.

That’s when things get interesting.

“So Happy Together,’’ McFadden’s second novel, is not Updike. It’s a layered story about a family, but the characters won’t haunt you years from now the way Rabbit Angstrom did. The family dilemmas, however, might stick with you for a while.

Claire is a popular but burned-out high school teacher ready to explore a photography career and her conscience. A single mother, she has an annoyingly self-absorbed beau, an estranged daughter who unexpectedly returns home - broke and pregnant, and in need of some direction (and a smack in the head) - and aging parents who increasingly need her presence in their lives, physically and emotionally. The story will resonate with those in the so-called “Sandwich Generation,’’ those in midlife who are parents and financial supporters to their young-adult children and caregivers to their aging parents. It might also grab anyone who’s straddled the fine line between putting your family or yourself first.

The characters, flawed and familiar, trigger some surprising plot twists. Claire’s noncommunicative father, who has Parkinson’s disease, shares a secret he’s harbored for 50 years, and a believably sad revelation surfaces: Her mother, 78, still longs for a passionate, romantic love. Revelations like these make you care about the three generations of this family. At least until your next summer read.

The novel starts in fictional Lincoln, N.J., and about midway thankfully moves on to Provincetown. The increasing pace, the on-the-mark descriptions of the lower Cape and especially Commercial Street’s eccentric splendor, the intriguing and improbable relationships that develop, and the convincing dialogue keep you from abandoning the family in Depressing-ville, N.J. It’s worth slogging through the slow setup and McFadden’s fuzzy direction to reach the reward later on.

If you’re a family person, a member of that sandwich generation, or a fan of saltwater, fishing boats, right whales, and the creaky wood floors of old Cape cottages, “So Happy Together’’ - much like Elin Hilderbrand’s novel “Barefoot’’ - is worth tucking in your beach bag, ready to be pulled out while your family surfs the Wellfleet waves.

Janet Simmons is a member of the Globe staff.

Correction: Because of a cataloging error, the photo accompanying the book review in yesterday's "g" section was not of author Maryann McFadden.

SO HAPPY TOGETHER

By Maryann McFadden

Hyperion, 400 pp., $23.99

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