Emily and David are getting married. They are in their late twenties, they live in San Francisco, and they love each other. But Emily is very anxious and insecure, as we see in the opening scenes, when they are flying to New York. Emily is convinced that there is a terrorist boarding the plane and she questions the flight attendant about why she called her ma'am and asks her what age she thinks she looks. So she makes interactions awkward. We see how this makes sense when we see her mother, a therapist, who endlessly criticizes Emily and respects no boundaries. Although Emily and David have some dietary restrictions that are faddish, they are relatively normal compared to the rest of Emily's family. Emily has a sister who blogs for a radical feminist website, and who has a male partner who doesn't say much. They have a 3-year-old son who they are raising in a gender neutral way, resisting any traditional gender roles. Emily's brother is, in contrast, sexist in traditional ways -- newly divorced, he aims to have sex with as many younger women as possible, and he believes that men should show women who is in control. But he is in his mid-30s and he is not attractive, so he doesn't have as much success as he would like. All three children have suppressed anger towards their parents, who raised them eccentrically. Their father is a scholar who is focused on his obscure books and their father is a psychotherapist, who is constantly analyzing them. The action takes place over a week of the guests all hanging out in Westchester, and as the days pass, the problems increase.
Family and Other Catastrophes is often funny, generally at the expense of modern trends in political correctness, using snark to make fun of them. Alexandra Borowitz shows sexual politics, intergenerational politics, class politics, modern internet trends, the world of startups, as well as people getting drunk and making fools of themselves. Secrets get revealed, and people learn meaningful lessons. The best thing about the book is that it is often funny. She does enough character development for readers to have some emotional involvement in the characters, and the situations are often absurd. One of the best is when Emily's mother insists that she will run family therapy for her and her children, and brushes away their protests that it is unprofessional and unethical.
The question for interpretation of the book is whether Borowitz is making fun of all the people equally, or whether she is making particular fun of the ideas of feminism and progressive politics. She makes most of the progressive politics look silly, especially with the defense of so much of the rules of progressivism based on people's self-esteem. But nearly all the characters do and say a lot of ridiculous things. They also end up holding on to their core values yet being reasonable with each other, so no one is depicted as vicious. Ultimately it is a good-hearted comedy that riffs off many current trends and honors the value of love. None of the characters is particularly believable, and sometimes the dialog is so artificial that just isn't funny. But on the whole the novel is amusing and the words flow well.
© 2018 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.