By Lisa Zeidner
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pp. $26
nolead ends nolead begins
Reviewed by Katie Haegele
Lisa Zeidner's new novel is set pretty much entirely in a suburban house - specifically, in Haddonfield - where a wedding is taking place. But when the bride walks down the makeshift aisle in her mother's living room to the strains of Pachelbel's Canon, she's wearing combat boots with her wedding gown and has a bomb strapped to her arm.
This isn't the real bride, as everyone soon realizes, but since her face is covered by a gas mask and sunglasses, no one knows who it is. All they know is that this woman is very angry and not a little theatrical, and that she's holding the party hostage. She locks them in the cramped room, pulls a rifle out from behind the entertainment center, and fires a few shots into the ceiling for good measure.
What follows is an afternoon of sort-of terror, and as the action unfolds, Zeidner introduces us to the wedding party, with their tangled relationships and gnarled family tree.
There are embittered second husbands and third wives, a teenager with Asperger's, two babies, and a small group of people from Chad and Mali whom the bride and groom met during their stint in Doctors Without Borders. For added spice, there's a famous actress (the groom's sister) and her famous actor boyfriend, along with a ponderous and smirky novelist named Ben Kramer, whose name sounded convincingly enough like a real novelist's that I googled it. (He's fictional, I think.)
Between them the two families count five mental-health service providers, which is also good for a laugh. Indeed, Zeidner's noodling about the shrinks provides some of the novel's most interesting food for thought. The bride's thrice-married psychiatrist father, Jake, who has a passion for remodeling, believes that "thinking about the spaces of houses - lofty attics and creepy basements, big windows with window seats for lounging with a book open on your lap as you survey the sky - was like thinking about the mind itself."
But Jake, like many of the people we meet in this living room, turns out to be pretty ineffectual, and kind of a jerk. It's Helen Burns, the bride's mother, who is the warm, beating heart at the center of this novel. She's a therapist, too - though a "mere Ph.D." among the med-school elitists - and she was trained in the Reichian school, which has to do with vibrations and energy. Rather than seeming silly, Helen is quietly intelligent, observant, and kind in her assessments of people.
There are a few too many people to get a handle on, and in introducing them all, Zeidner indulges in exposition masquerading as storytelling, which makes the reading experience go limp for pages at a time. But when she's in the moment - the tense but sometimes amusing moment of this hostage wedding - Zeidner is on point. There's a nice, ironic synergy between the black bomb strapped to the terrorist's arm and the ugly, old-fashioned wrist corsages the older women were given to wear. (At one point Helen yanks hers off, feeling a huge sense of relief.)
A bigger problem than managing all these characters is the book's personality, which seemed split; I spent the first 70 pages trying to determine its tone. Was it a black-hearted satire? A send-up of celebrity culture? A comedy of manners, sexual politics, race relations? A straightforward thriller? All these elements are there in pieces, gathering like storm clouds, but they don't gather fast enough.
And yet, this complication doesn't undo the drama. The book is buoyed by Zeidner's sympathetic sense of humor; she skewers family dynamics with precision and sensitivity. (Poor Helen, still single many years after her divorce, dreaded hosting the wedding at her unstylish home. She pictured "the newer wives parading past the diorama of her stalled life, their pupils widening and narrowing like camera lenses as they clicked off the seriously outdated wallpaper. . . .") Eventually the different elements of the novel coalesce into one - a solid drama - and after all the introductions and throat-clearing, we strike storytelling gold.
Somebody suggests they try to identify the hostage-taker by determining who among them is most likely to have an enemy. By turns, they go up to the podium and make their confessions. It's an overdone setup, but it gives us what we came for: a story. Several stories, actually, and good ones at that. The bride's brother tells a ferociously bitter but comic tale of the night he tried to skin and grill a rabbit his dog killed in the yard, which also happened to be the night his marriage ended. A caterer talks about an ex-boyfriend who won't leave her alone. A guest admits to some of her own dark obsessions. Each story is funny and touching, and gleams with the cut of truth.
And eventually, of course, the mystery is solved and the crazy lady is dealt with. When all the drama has died down, what we're left with is the story's essential warmth and good humor. Even the grumpiest reader will warm to Zeidner's sweeter ideas about love and loyalty, marriage, motherhood, and romance.
Take what she tells us about weddings, which turns out to be true even of this disastrous one: People "applaud the poignancy of living in time, of not knowing what will happen to you, not thinking about failure or grief or old age or death. Mostly they applaud the spectacle of hope itself."