The Essingers, Jewish father Bill, a not quite retired academic, and German mother Liesel, are having all the family home for Christmas in Austin, Texas. “There are too many of us,” Liesel says in the novel’s first sentence. They are 15, including herself and Bill. “It gave her pleasure to be able to count them.” The four children are now middle-aged or on the cusp of middle-age. They are Nathan, soon perhaps to be a federal judge, Susie, whose husband David is about to take her and the children to a new post in Oxford, Jean, the youngest, who lives in London, and Paul who was the easiest of them once and no longer is. Having been a successful tennis player, he has retired, rich, and bought a house a few miles from the family home. He knows what the rest of his life shouldn’t be, but not what he wants it to be. He has split or is estranged from his wife Dana, and is not pleased that his mother has invited Dana for Christmas, even though he wants to have his young son Cal with him. Nathan and Susie also have children, mostly older than Cal. Jean is unmarried, but has invited her older partner, Henrik, to join them on Boxing Day. They are the sort of family for whom crossing the Atlantic is as normal as taking a bus to the city centre is for others.
So they congregate, except for Bill who has to fly to New York where his sister is dying. The novel is made up of small incidents, walks, meals, talk and trying to prevent the kids from watching TV all day. There are tensions, especially for Paul and Dana. She isn’t sure she wants to be there or should be there, and she doesn’t know what her relationship with Paul now is, because she no longer understands him; he isn’t happy that his mother has invited Dana, but nevertheless assumes that even though they live apart, they are in some way still a couple. He fears that he may be losing his son, and displays a possessiveness that makes such a loss probable. Paul is, to my mind, tiresome, but the novel needs him the way a salad dressing needs good vinegar.
There is a strong sense of the importance of family, but there is an edginess to many of the conversations, an awareness that some self-restraint in talk and expressing opinion is needed. But there is warmth too, at times approaching the warmth of what we believe Christmas should be, the sort of ideal Christmas you think your own childhood Christmases were. Markovits is a wonderfully engaging writer. You feel he knows his characters thoroughly, and he refrains from judging them. There is a sense that though the Essingers have all gone far and in different directions in adult life and their careers, the family bond holds so firmly that their wives and husbands never quite escape the sense of not quite belonging, even of being excluded.
There is a charm to this novel, the sort of charm you find in that masterpiece of cinema, Meet Me in St Louis, with its wonderful Christmas scene. But charm is dangerous in a novel; it can easily turn to syrup. Markovits is too alert to the difficulties and discordances of family life to drift into that area. The result is a novel that is as pleasurable as it is intelligent. Allan Massie Christmas in Austin by Benjamin Markovits, Faber & Faber, 412pp, £16.99