Jacqueline Carey is not afraid to be mean. The spirit of tart-tongued indictment is alive and well in The Crossley Baby, her new novel of (bad) manners. The book chronicles a family of sisters, each leading their respective New York lives. When one of them dies, leaving behind a 10-month-old daughter, the family must figure out how to address the tragedy. Delicacy has never been prized by the Crossleys. The family has a history of feuding and fierce grudges, and the sisters share a respect for battle even as they try to get along. The book isn’t very flattering to sisters, to mothers, or to wives, upending the firmly held belief that such roles are, in their essence, Good. But Carey doesn’t mean to be flattering; she means to be right.
Jean is driven, hard, material, professional. She gets things done. She gets everything done. Sunny is a mother, silky sweet, adorable, irresistible to men, fond of people. Bridget, the eldest, is the bohemian, and she will be dead before five pages have elapsed. We get to know her in reflection. In a flaky and mysterious way, Bridget has recently become a mother, but that same womb that redefined her also kills her when she must go in for a routine operation to remove a fibroid. The surgery is botched and she dies, leaving behind her baby, Jade. Sunny assumes she, with her established routines of motherhood and her postcard-pretty house, will take over care of the baby, but Jean sees her own excessive competence as the only important tool in child-rearing and takes the baby herself. A custody feud ensues.
Carey can get away with her meanness (and with being right) because she laces the book with wit and impeccable observation. She also dares to speak truths that usually remain opaque, if they’re even acknowledged at all:
“By 4:30 Jean had learned the central question in childcare,” she writes. “People with less intelligence, less keenness of eye, and less strength of character often avoided the most difficult question in any field by branching into more frivolous controversies—in this case, bottle vs. breast, or ‘talking’ vs. corporal punishment. When the real question was: What did you do with a baby? You couldn’t have a conversation with one, you couldn’t take one to a bar, you couldn’t even watch TV with one.”
It takes a while for the reader to hit Carey’s stride, a sort of authoritative, buzzing march through life with constant glances to the side. Trying to keep up can leave the reader breathless. Carey may be able to sort through the details in her own mind, but we sometimes lag behind as we try to sift the significant from the incidental. It’s as if she can’t keep herself from setting down everything she knows; anything less would feel incomplete.
So there is always more to a description, a scene, a conversation. Sometimes a description reaches for something only the writer sees: “She stood at the center of the kitchen, studying Ariel’s untouched sandwich. Nothing was more deeply embedded in her brain than the shape of a piece of bread.” Such a wealth of information can be wearying at times, leading us astray from the book’s central conflicts. In a Harlem office, for example, the cast of characters garners enormous description—”Sighing, Luisa lowered herself into her chair with the surprising delicacy of a helicopter”—and their predicaments are detailed (immigration, financial woes, foster care). Yet these people don’t figure significantly in the story.
Men waver at the edges of this book. Jean’s husband Geoffrey is virtually invisible, passing in and out of their apartment without much effect. He agrees to pursue custody of the baby he’s not interested in so that Jean will sleep with him, a kind of second-fiddle longing his strongest character trait. He’s like one of those quietly wise-cracking men played by Joel McCrea to Claudette Colbert’s fierce achiever. Sunny’s husband Leon is a real estate developer who is trying to make good homes out of rundown properties in Harlem, winning the trust of the neighbors slowly.
But his idealism—as it always will—betrays him. Because Leon is shadowy, the many scenes set in his office have the feeling of a subplot abandoned. Jean is the most fully realized character, and Carey hardly cuts her any slack, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and makes her by far the most interesting of the lot (even in competition with the dead, and so inherently interesting, Bridget). A stunning scene takes place in Jean’s apartment when an adoption social worker comes for an appointed interview. The social worker begins with the standard, earnest assessment questions, and Jean, to her horror and ours, turns into a beastly version of Dorothy Parker, cracking off-color jokes and snarling with disdain. She has just begun to realize how important this inconvenient baby is to her, and it terrifies her.
Carey can be hilariously cutting and wickedly on target. Here Jean takes baby Jade to the doctor: “A month earlier, she would have been perplexed by the relative equanimity with which the grown women around her idled away their time in a pediatrician’s office, occasionally glancing through a handful of truisms in a parenting magazine. But now she recognized the stunned-love state that made your surroundings irrelevant. Besides which, it was interesting to compare Jade to the other babies in the room, all of whom were whiny, fat, lumpish, sullen, or slow.”
Such fiendish observation and acidic sensibility are just the remedies we need right now, the antidote to insipid times. Like a Tom Tomorrow political cartoon, The Crossley Baby has an essential, bracing effect—and still portrays the heart of a family.