By Rachel Sherman
Rachel Sherman's Living Room attempts to diagram the collapse of a Long Island family through the lives of three generations of women, but falls short of the subtlety and also, paradoxically, the devastating drama required of the genre. The mother, Livia, plays the feminist academic, refusing the role of homemaker under the guise of finishing a master's, on which she never works, preferring to spend the better part of her time lying in bed eating (she has enough money for an au pair). Livia's chronic denial of responsibility is a symptom that is cured only after Headie, the grandmother, dies. In an infuriatingly cliched and obvious parental revelation, Livia realizes "That it is not about her."
The stories of Headie and Livia's teen daughter, Abby, exhibit similar yet slightly less overwrought banality, and though ancillary to the story of Livia's overdue maturation, in comparison make for a more believable and interesting read. Abby's problems are typical of high school: boys, cigarettes and first attempts at getting drunk. To Abby, being drunk is "like being dead, like being a puppet or a doll," an innocent, yet visually complicated sentiment that speaks to a greater maturity. "Anything could have happened," she thinks after blacking out from alcohol. One feels for Abby, who seems to understand the consequences of her actions on a deeper level than her mother, who only thinks of herself and the trauma of seeing her daughter in the hospital. When they get home, it's Abby who comforts an hysterical Livia: "Mom, it's OK."
Thankfully, even more so than Abby's tale, it is Headie's sometimes dementia-infused memories of the 50s, and her roles of wife, lover and mother, that save the book. The juxtaposition between the time periods in which Headie and Livia became mothers is refreshing; in a reversal of stereotypes, Headie wonders if Livia isn't a "prude" underneath her liberal exterior. There is a well-crafted argument between their two generations, highlighting drastic and important changes in the American way of life, but Sherman falls short of positing a theory as to what it means for Abby. Although Living Room feels at times like it wants to delve into the unseen corners of suburbia, and the pressure exerted on women therein (al la Munro or Yates), Sherman seems content to record only the exaggerated reflections at the surface, and we are left with characters that are merely privileged and annoying, rather than troubled and worth remembering.