Close quarters have a way of ratcheting up drama, especially when the people contained know each other’s pressure points and they’ve had years to nurse resentments and gauge each other’s strengths, weaknesses and personalities. The siblings and spouses at the core of Lynn Steger Strong’s new novel “Flight” (Mariner, 240 pp., ★★★½ out of four, out now) have all endured their share of disappointment. Now they’re gathered for Christmas in Upstate New York surroundings as chilly as their own interactions. Hanging over their heads, and pushing them deeper into acrimony, is grief.
Henry, Martin and Kate have suddenly lost their mother to a stroke. Helen was a mighty presence not just to her adult children but also to their spouses, Alice, Tess and Josh. The six would usually gather for the holidays at Helen’s Florida home. Instead, they’re in the cold, at Henry and Alice’s place, figuring out how to sell that home, if to sell it, and who will benefit most from these next steps. Kate wants to move in, her emotional attachment to the family home overwhelms her need for money. The others would like to cash in. They do get around to discussing these matters, but mostly the business questions remain part of the subtext, bubbling beneath the surface, the largely unspoken tension fueling quiet animosity.
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Strong bores in each character, each couple, with acute emotional intelligence, crafting a chamber play atmosphere in the vein of Ibsen or Bergman. Once we figure out who’s who, who’s married to whom and which kids belong to which couple, the character arcs begin to intersect and the sketches give way to frescoes. “Flight” doesn’t just juggle the interior lives of six protagonists with great dexterity; it also carefully delineates who these people are to each other, and where anger and jealousy might clip the wings of their better angels.
Tess, for instance, can’t stand Josh, Kate’s callow, unfocused husband. Henry, an environmental artist, is wounded by his wife Alice’s decision to walk away from her own art in favor of a career in social work. Alice, who can’t have children of her own, obsesses over Maddie, the daughter of her client Quinn, a recovering heroin addict whose own mother is useless. It’s a tangled web, but Strong unravels it with skill and empathy.
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It’s also a reminder of how the loss of one person can scramble the lives of everyone that person touched. The matriarch Helen weaves in and out of “Flight” in the characters’ memories, a presence defined by absence. When she was alive, this wobbly family had structure and ballast. They may have sniped and fought, but they had a place to stand when they were finished. Without her, life makes little sense. All of the old wounds are reopened. Buried grudges reemerge. Helen, soulful, practical and nurturing, was the family’s glue. When she’s gone, the structure crumbles.
“Flight” sweeps forward in a rich flurry of details: a fallen gingerbread house, a game of Canasta, a furtive sexual encounter. Tightly plotted and vividly rendered, it brings to mind Tolstoy’s adage from “Anna Karenina,” about how each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Of course, beneath the unhappiness, hopefully, there is love. That’s here too. It’s why they fight in the first place. You just have to wipe away a lot of frost to get there.