Going home, as in back to our home town the place where it all began, or in my case, began all over again after perfectly fine starts in two other places, is a fraught experience.
In theory it shouldn’t be, especially if you have a family, like mine, with whom you get on (mostly) extremely well, in that dysfunctionally functional way common to most close families; but something happens when everyone reassembles in the one place, cheek-by-jowl in a way they haven’t been for a good many years – you start behaving just like you did when you were kids.
Sure, all the trappings of adulthood are there and you are supposedly a whole different person to who you were when the fights were about LEGO and who got to lick out the cake mix bowl, but still, go back home and it’s like some long-dormant program springs into action and you start playing your pre-assigned roles all over again.
That’s certainly what overtakes the Carters of the fictional Australian town of Winston who arrive back to their mother Rachel’s home – their father George also lives in the same town but spending any significant amount of time with the spurned spouse is seen as treasonous by Rachel and so must be done not at all or quietly – for daughter Claudia’s wedding, an event she should be wildly excited about but about which she isn’t.
She should be, she tells herself – Dylan is kind, sweet, helpful, intelligent; in short his list of great points far overweighs the negatives any woman (and quite a few gay men) would be thrilled to have him and Claudia is … sort of.
“Winston was like every other home town in our collective history in that it was incredibly dull but had the power to both enchant and provoke regression in its former inhabitants … If that was not enough to give a 28-year-old woman whiplash from the nostalgia, Claudia Carter had returned that September to get married. Despite being the perfectly average age to do such a perfectly average thing, Claudia was feeling radical. The idea of marriage still seemed to foreign to her that it was almost subversive.” (P. 1)
Her inexplicable indifference, for which she attempts to determine a cause, or at least an assurance that it’s perfectly normal – her siblings and best friend assure her to a person that it’s not in that honest way only siblings and BFFs can get away with – stands in stark contrast to the broiling dynamic that surges through the relationships between all four Carter siblings, and on through to mum Rachel (and her detested selfish sister Mary, who is the unifying aunt everyone detests) who stands at the centre of her own self-appointed, self-centred storm.
The Way Things Should Be, the debut novel by journalist Bridie Jabour, captures the love-hate, uplifting-downcasting back-and-forth of pretty much every mostly-functional family, underlining again and again with fluid, sparklingly authentic dialogue, believably fractious sibling relationships and sibling/parent interactions, and a pitch-perfect setting which is reassuringly as it always was but damningly boring for the same reason, just how odd visits back to home towns can be.
Claudia is mostly like Switzerland siblings-wise, getting on (again, mostly; remember, this is family we’re talking about where nothing is forever) with posh, ambitious Zoe, laconic, stay-out-of-the-way Phinn and combustible, unhappy-with-life baby of the family Poppy and mum Rachel.
Hers is a strangely relaxed existence of getting on with everyone, but as she discovers all over again, or is reminded again, more accurately – because who ever really forgets how every family tableau will play out? You know the ending before they even begin – that doesn’t make you immune from the ebbs and flows of family love and hate, nor of the inability of close friends such as Nora to integrate themselves into a dynamic which, like a particularly testy immune system, repels all comers not borne into it.
It’s a fascinating world unto its own to explore and Jabour does it with easygoing aplomb, serving up the week leading to Claudia’s will she-won’t she wedding as a series of family scenes which illustrate how close they close are, and yet, how very far away from each other they remain, the demarcations of childhood finding fresh expression in adulthood.
Take Zoe. She arrives with the forced glamour of someone trying a little too hard and yet her Instagram feed, which is all the siblings really know of her, and only after someone in Winston’s florist tips them off, would seem to indicate she’s doing very well indeed in life.
But how well? No one is really sure – where does she live? What does she really do? Is she happy, sad, indifferent? No one is entirely sure, just as they only seeing Poppy stomping in and out in one tantrum-like fit after another, unaware of the great existential dramas playing out for her.
That’s the thing with families, which Jabour captures absolutely perfectly – you think you know your siblings because why wouldn’t you, they’re family; and yet when you drop all your assumptions and really think about it, you hardly know anything at all, familiarity papering out the great gaping chasms in what passes for familial intimacy.
“The pair fell back into the silence they had learned more than twenty-seven years ago when Phinn first began to talk. It was a silence like an embrace, familiar and comforting and brimming with habit. They knew they were both thinking about their younger sister. Ensconced in their old battle lines, they had stuck with each other when Claudia slammed the front door, ensuring everyone inside knew she was ignoring them.” (P. 208)
Much of that dynamic of knowing/not knowing comes down to the fact that you easily slip into the roles of yore without a second thought.
You know they’re happening; they’re hard to miss after all.
You can predict with unerring accuracy what one person will do in a particular situation, or that the lines between people, observed with scrupulous precision with those outside the family circle, will be observed unrelentingly, will be blurred again and again, something Jabour illustrates with the amusing, endlessly-recurring refrain of “Are you wearing/using my … ?”
Jabour brings this weird closeness to life with a thousand pithy observations, jabbing lines of dialogue that come loaded with years of resentment and understanding and the easy-flowing repartee of people who do love each other deep down, but aren’t always entirely sure what to do with it.
The Way Things Should Be exists beautifully in that place between reality and longing where we cope with what we have while all the time wishing things were picture-perfect, fairytale perfect.
No one ever says that, of course, but it’s always there, both for Claudia in her indecisive approach to getting married, and the family as a whole as they navigate their forced togetherness because of it, with Jabour bringing to life with gloriously-good, compulsively-readable honesty, how families can be the very thing that should be the best part of our lives but how so often, despite our best intentions and wish-fulfillment longing, they fall perilously and messily far short of the idealised image we have of them.