Stranger, Father, Beloved
(Gallery Books, 2016)
Brooklyn writer Taylor Larsen’s debut novel, Stranger, Father, Beloved is the relentlessly bleak story of the dissolution of an American nuclear family. With elegant and sparse prose, Larsen uses three characters—a father, mother, and daughter—to weave together the narrative of a patriarch so dissatisfied with his role as a husband and father that he tries to replace himself as both with a total stranger.
Michael James is a deeply unhappy person. He lives on a Rhode Island peninsula with his wife Nancy and their two children, Ryan and Max. A former academic, Michael gave up a promising career at Yale alongside his best friend, Alex, to marry Nancy. But now, stuck in a job as a software developer that brings him no joy, Michael is plagued by anxiety, depression, and insomnia. He blames his wife for his unhappiness, and regards her as his intellectual inferior since she never went to college.
As the novel opens, the Jameses host a dinner party. Over the course of the evening, Michael witnesses Nancy interacting with one of the guests, a local landscaper named John Randolph. Michael is struck by how at ease she seems with this stranger: “Michael saw that his wife was grinning with an ecstatic happiness, and he knew he had never before elicited from her such a response of unrestrained joy.” Rather than explode in a jealous rage, the sight captivates him. He sees a way out. An odd thought creeps into his mind: John is the person Nancy should have married.
Convinced he is saving his family, Michael embarks on a bizarre scheme to extract himself from his marriage and replace himself with John. He invites John to family gatherings and manufactures opportunities for John and Nancy to be alone, hoping they will cheat. Even more bizarrely, Michael comes to respect John for his simple nature, and the two men form a tenuous friendship. By the time Michael and Nancy attend a second dinner party where Alex reemerges, reminding Michael of everything he has given up in his life, Michael starts to realize his dissatisfaction with his marriage may be due to a larger fissure within his own identity.
It is to Larsen’s credit that she manages to create sympathy for characters that are, at the outset, so unlikable. At first, Michael comes across like a selfish child, a misogynist and absentee father. His young son Max is a severe asthmatic, and yet Michael won’t move to a climate more conducive to his illness. His teenage daughter Ryan is sexually manipulative, gleefully parading her developing body in front of her best friend’s envious mother. Nancy dreads her own birthday, since it’s the only day of the year Michael treats her well. Yet she is too intimidated to confront him over his lack of respect for her. Everyone is caught in a downward, depressing spiral for which Michael is unquestioningly the cause.
In fact, for the first quarter of the novel, Larsen tries too hard to convince us of Michael’s existential ennui. At times, her sentences go too far, making connections for readers that are inherent in her characters’ behaviors. But as the novel progresses, this tapers off. Larsen grows more comfortable with her characters and more assured in her writing. While Michael, Nancy, and Ryan are the three main voices through which the story unfolds, this is ultimately Michael’s story. As we gradually learn more about him, motivations start to emerge. When he makes a startling revelation towards the end of the novel, it’s possible to at last glean some understanding for him. Eventually, compassion follows. It’s evident that Michael, however misguided, acts from a place of concern for his family. He finally faces his failures, which he has been unable to do so for so long.
Stranger, Father, Beloved is an unflinching exploration of identity in 21st century America. Members of the James clan struggle to assert themselves in a familial environment that all but suffocates self-expression and joy. But in the end, the austere tone takes a surprisingly resonant swing towards the hopeful. Michael and Ryan have experienced parallel sexual awakenings. While his is stifled, hers is not. As Michael succeeds in extricating himself of his responsibilities, it’s tethered to the vague prospect that his children’s lives may not be as alienating as his own. Whether or not he’s successful is up to readers to decide.