For many people, family is the prism through which much of life makes sense.
We may not always love our fellow family members are fully and completely as Hallmark might suggest, but it is through our connections to our parents and siblings and uncles and aunts and grandparents and on and on that we anchor ourselves and gain a sense of belonging and perspective that we would otherwise lack.
Quite how powerful the role of family is comes gently and yet with impact in Christine Reilly’s 2016 debut novel Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday which takes us, with amusing and confronting honesty through the marriage of Claudio and Mathilde, a union which gives birth, quite literally to three unique, closely-bonded daughters, and which draws people like Mathilde’s gay brother Sawyer and his partner Noah, and Claudio’s schizophrenic sister Jane into its welcoming if typically dysfunctional orbit.
The use of the word “dysfunctional” is deliberate.
Every family, even those of the picture postcards white picket fences and the sales catalogue gatherings, have an element of dysfunction precisely because they are made up of flawed human beings who despite undeniable love and good intentions never quite get things right.
Case in point is a key plot device that involves Claudio, Jane and Sawyer – exactly what is best left to the reading, folded as it is to a series of events that force various family members to evaluate once again what means the most to them – which is birthed in the purest of intent but whose execution, done in secrecy and with all the consequent complications that induces for those not in the loop, is as dysfunctional as it gets.
“Instead of answering, Claudio walked to the kitchen and came back with a bag of chocolate chips, pouring a handful into his palm and holding his hand out to Mathilde. Mathilde asked, can we talk about something less gloomy?, for she was supposed to be the shadowy, sensational one. Claudio was supposed to be her balloon, pulling her out of her rumbling, showboating despair.” (P. 23)
Written with prose that is playful and yet movingly, emotionally resonant, Reilly portrays with empathetic insight how poor decisions and dubiously conceived plans do not mean the people involved are evil and broken in some way.
They are, in fact, acting out of love, and if Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday is anything, it is a fond, honest love letters to every family that is, was and will be, and to the way that for all their missteps and issues, most of them provide just the right kind of nourishment for people to boldly go out into life with confidence and a sense that anything is possible.
Claudio and Mathilde’s three daughters are proof positive of how important family can be through the good and the bad.
The eldest Natasha is a prodigy, the sort of person you would expect to occupy the role of oldest sibling while Lucy, who’s afflicted with a heart condition that requires an eventual transplant is more whimsical and introspective, prone to dressing up in fabulously loud clothes and willing to take emotionally big steps such as contacting her aunt Jane whom she accepts on face value.
The youngest, Carly, is adopted from China and while she has never has caused to doubt that she is a Simone and just as loved as Natasha or Lucy, quietly wonders where she is from and whether she really belongs in this loving world she has been gifted.
The brilliance of Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday is that Reilly never once tries to build up the narrative into something it is not.
There are no great epiphanies, no clanging great moments of high drama or overwrought melodrama; what you get instead in a novel replete with warmth, honesty, good humour and pain, are slowly percolating, deftly expressed moments from one family’s up-and-down life.
In other words, the slow, rambling manner that characterises the way almost all families operate.
There are, of course, moments more noticeable than others and Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday does have these and they matter and are there in ways that affect you intensely, but they are embedded in the story of a family whose love for each other, and whose appreciation of poetry, music and acting, gets them through the very worst and best of things, and they feel, in Reilly’s evocatively capable hands, like a natural part of the Simone family’s emotional landscape.
“Still, it was somehow true that Sawyer really loved this woman, but in a way no man he knew loved his wife, even the closeted gay men who still managed to have sex and best friendships with their wives. His connubial love was retired, safe. He compared it to the god moment he imagined surgeons experienced during surgery. A filial love, a love for a baby.” (P. 203)
What makes Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday also come alive is the vivacity of the characterisation.
Every single person in this family comes across as fully-formed and demonstrably alive, with all of them a beguiling mix of the capable and the maladroit, the loving and the careless; in other words, they are grounded real people who unquestioningly love each other and go out of their way to demonstrate but who don’t always get it right.
It’s the very aliveness and relatability of these characters that make Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday such a sublime, immersive joy to read.
While they don’t leap from the page necessarily, since it’s not that kind of book, they are exquisitely wonderfully alive in all their flawed glory and you find yourselves deeply attached to them because they feel like families you know, perhaps even your own.
Every one of us has found ourselves getting things right and wrong in the context of family, and while the mistakes can cause ripples and ructions, what anchors everything and keeps you grounded is the fact that you are part of something bigger than yourself.
Reilly celebrates this in ways gorgeously idiosyncratic, funny, painful and sad, rendering Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday as one of those must-read novels that celebrates how families really are, in all their fractured, nurturing glory, and how, while they may not be perfect, they are a place to call home and help us make sense of a world which, for often than not, defies all logic, common sense and reason.