Book Review

Bickering characters drive a story of family dysfunction

By Joseph Peschel
January 19, 2011

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You might recognize Jessica Anya Blau as the author of 2008’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story “The Summer of Naked Swim Parties.’’ High and low comedy, nude swimming, and familial frenzy floated through “Swim Parties’’ like pot smoke.

Blau’s second novel, like “Swim Parties,’’ takes place mostly in Santa Barbara, Calif. This time the year is 1993, with excursions by flashbacks to Michigan and New England and to the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. It’s only her second novel, but a book by Blau would be disappointing without pot smoking, hilarious and sometimes grungy sex, and bickering relatives. This one has more than you can shake a dysfunctional family stick at.

Blau says she used her own family as a “launching pad for the novel.’’ She even interviews her own family in the novel’s postscript. Some of the same topics — sex, drugs, and family squabbles — were visited in “Swim Parties,’’ but Blau depicts them in fresh and entertaining ways, even when the subtext is heartrending.

Three adult children in their 20s and 30s have flown in from the East Coast and gather in Santa Barbara to visit their mother, Louise. She’s been hospitalized after suffering a massive heart attack. Louise, 54, is a chain-smoking old hippie. Opinionated, blunt, cantankerous, she’s free-spirited enough to have never swum in a swimsuit. Husband Buzzy is a lawyer but hardly a straight arrow: He used to grow marijuana in the backyard. He promised Louise he wouldn’t tell the kids about her heart attack, but he broke down.

Anna, the oldest, has flown in from Vermont where her cuckolded husband runs a flower shop. Her infant son stayed home. Anna’s been in and out of treatment for drug and sex addictions. She’s only recently forgiven her mother for a “litany of crimes.’’ Younger Portia sympathizes more with their mother, but she’s often blunt, which makes Louise laugh. Portia’s husband, Patrick, has left her, after seven years, for a younger woman — Portia caught him in flagrante delicto. Portia’s daughter, Esmé, stayed with Patrick in the girlfriend’s apartment. The youngest sibling, Emery, a television show producer, arrives with his boyfriend, Alejandro. They plan to ask Anna and Portia for their eggs so they can have a baby — they have chosen the woman who will bear the child.

While visiting Mom, the family jokes and bickers. They eat Louise’s food and incur the wrath of the hospital social worker who, unaccustomed to a splash of good old family fun and bickering, thinks they’re an uncaring family.

Blau intersperses scenes of daily family visits to Mom in the hospital with histories that give fullness to main characters who could easily have become sitcom- like. Instead, they’re generally believable people. Louise, the most well-rounded character, is a product of ’60s and ’70s hipness, a converted Jew who is now a Jew hater: She even hates Philip Roth and Woody Allen. Oy! Buzzy, though, has a few quirks and personal weaknesses that make him believable and sympathetic. They’re enough for the reader to forgive him his lack of breadth. Blau imbues Anna’s sexual exploits and squalid drug adventures with a loving irony, but her predicament with drug-dealing bikers seems improbable. Portia, who is everything Anna is not, is convincing as the child-mom who took over raising the family when her hippie-artist mother quit being a housewife.

“Drinking Closer to Home’’ is an entertaining romp through one family’s history that you’ll enjoy as much as Blau’s family enjoyed commenting on the characters they inspired.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at or through his website at


Harper Perennial, 368 pp., paperback, $14.99