Lookaway, Lookaway is the book that Jonathon Franzen wouldve written if he decided to not write about dysfunctional privileged Northern families and decided to write about dysfunctional privileged Southern families instead. This novel is complex and well-written, insightful and also sad.
Jerene is a Charlotte society woman who spends her time worrying about her family’s reputation, her children, what china pattern to use, and her volunteer work at the Mint Museum. Her husband Duke is a lawyer who no longer works, focusing on his hobby of Civil War reenactment, particularly on a small piece of land that was the site of “The Skirmish at the Trestle.”
Their children are disappointments, of course. Annie was too plump to be accepted in debutante circles and had a string of failed marriages, altho she has gained some success as a real estate agent. Bo is a Presbyterian minister who can’t escape his narrow views on class and race to really minister to anyone, and often clashes with his wife Kate over these ideas. Joshua is gay, and lives with a black lesbian named Dorrie (the standout of the supporting cast) and has little ambition. Jerilyn is the baby of the family, and her mother’s best hope for a proper debut and good marriage- if Jerilyn can avoid sabotaging herself.
The extended family is equally varied and damaged. The most notable of them is Uncle Gaston, a rich alcoholic who authors a series of antebellum bestsellers which he loathes. Dorrie, altho not family, is tightly tied into this story too. Her perspective as a black lesbian shines a revealing, very uncomfortable light on many of the family’s proudest moments.
As a reader, you pick up a book like Lookaway, Lookaway knowing its going to be the story of a disaster, and the author does not disappoint. You don’t even make it past the first chapter before getting a glimpse of how bad things are behind the facade of money and class. There is a fantastically awful Christmas dinner scene halfway through the book- the sort where you’re cringing, but can’t stop reading. Ultimately, of course, the whole charade implodes in a very fitting way.
Barnhardt has a lot of insight in to human nature. The characters are well-drawn and complex, even while they are a wreck. There is pretty pointed social commentary, aimed at issues like race, class, abortion and being gay.
I started the review by saying this book reminded me a lot of Jonathon Franzen. With Franzen, you keep reading even tho his characters are awful because his use of the English language is just so good. Barnhardt has not quite reached that level of virtuouso writing, but he does something that may be harder- he makes you care for his characters. They are stupid and selfish and terminally lacking in self-awareness, but when they suffer the inevitable consequences of their bad choices, you feel for them.
Lookaway, Lookaway takes its title from the old song “Dixieland.” Its very much a story about old Southern, upper-class pretentions that remain to this day. But its also a story about what happens when people refuse to take an honest look at their lives, their family and the world around them- and instead decide to look away.
You might like: Corrections, Jonathon Franzen. Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld.