The Birthdays By Heidi Pitlor
When I read the concise description of this novel in the publisher's catalogue I thought it might be a good "summer read". I had no idea that The Birthdays by Heidi Pitlor would be one of the most captivating stories I've read this season. It is the end of the summer season, on an island off the east coast of the United States, at the summer home of Jake and Liz Miller. Jake is the middle child in the Miller family – dad is Joe, mom is Ellen, eldest brother Daniel, now married to Brenda, and little sister, Hilary, still unmarried at the age of 35. The family is gathering to celebrate Joe's 75th birthday. Each of the younger women is pregnant with their first child. The description in the catalogue and on the book jacket says "after the weekend, none of the Millers will emerge the same". Sounded intriguing. Of course if the writing is not great no book can be saved by an intriguing story line. In this case it was the writing that kept me going through the first few chapters. I found myself a little impatient with the self-absorption of these characters and their pregnancies, but before long I wanted to know how they would manage through some difficult issues within their marriages, and within the family as a whole.
Every family has their own issues - old resentments, personality conflicts, and unmet expectations - so on and so on. I am idealistic enough to assume that most families manage to find a way to be able to gather and, at least superficially, appear to care for each other. In the case of the Miller family they do care, but old wounds open easily and things are said that might best be kept silent. The reader is told the thoughts of each character - things the others in the family often know nothing about. Each marriage has its own challenges. The parents are long time married; the children have been out of the house for many years. Ellen and Joe are both still working and appear to be settled in their ways - she feels unappreciated, he feels somewhat harassed, she is contemplating an affair. Daniel and Brenda have had serious challenges in recent years, and the pregnancy is presenting its own difficulties for them both. They both seem like such nice people you really want things to be good for them. Some of the most poignant words in the novel are said by Daniel to his wife "This day will end soon and I'm guessing that a better day will come tomorrow, and a better one after that. You are sitting in the darkest time of the darkest day right now and it will improve." He didn't know where these words came from but he was glad he'd said them. Brenda may not appreciate them at that moment, but we hope she will remember them later.
Jake is not so likable, although he is the most affluent of the family, he is emotionally immature and always feels that he is not as appreciated as he should be.
His wife, Liz, after some initial remoteness, turns out to be a thoroughly nice woman. She saves Jake from becoming an even less likeable character than he already is. But even Jake has moments of awareness "he now wished more than anything that he was there, not here, there beside her in her room to tell her and Daniel that he was sorry for what they had gone through." Of course he does not tell his brother and his wife how much he cares - this is how wounds open and fester. They can't read his mind - he needs to say the words.
Hilary has been the rebel of the family, but she is actually the least tied up in knots of self-doubt. She is concerned about being a parent; she is concerned about the reaction of her family to her pregnancy. Hilary is contemplating returning to the east from San Francisco where she has lived away from the family for many years.
This weekend will be a challenge for the whole family. The family has grown with the marriages of the sons, and will soon grow again as babies are born. The adult children will be parents and with experience develop some understanding for the behaviour of their own parents. As Joe says to Jake "You'll see, once your babies come along. You never stop worrying, even after they grow up."
This is a weekend that the Miller family will always remember. This reader wonders if these marriages will survive into old age and what the dynamics will be then. By the end of the weekend I wasn't ready to be finished with these people, reminding myself they are imaginary, just literary inventions, for they are very real while you are reading - and that is truly the achievement of a thoroughly good novel.