It would be hard to find a more self-absorbed group of people than the Miller family, gathered on an island off the coast of Maine to celebrate the father's 75th birthday. He is the only person in The Birthdays
who consistently reaches out--to his wife, his children, and even to his box turtle. His birthday becomes an afterthought amid all the familial angst the siblings and their spouses--and one conspicuous lack of a spouse--bring to the table.
Heidi Pitlor has portrayed her characters perfectly. She has limned them so well that we know about where they will be on Joe's 76th birthday--at least emotionally. Daniel, the eldest, is a recent paraplegic, still coming to terms with his personal tragedy. His wife, Brenda, is pregnant through the services of a sperm donor, and Daniel is obsessed about who he is, what he looks like, and any detail he can imagine about him. He feels unmanned enough by his accident; now he is going to be the putative father of his wife's child with this stranger. Jake, the middle child, at whose home the festivities take place, is a roaring success in the world's eyes: great houses, lots of money, good job, the respect of his peers--but his wife needed in vitro fertilization to conceive and now she is pregnant with twins. His childhood neediness has never disappeared, despite his accomplishments. He is prescriptive, critical, petulant, and his wife has lost interest in sex. He is not exactly a charming host, though he tries. Hilary, the youngest, still a flower child at 35, is six months pregnant and has no clue who the father is. Her brothers are not unaware of how easy it was for the irresponsible, non-planner, barely able to care for herself, to conceive a child. Fecundity abounds, however arrived at.
As everyone straggles in, Joe's wife, Ellen, is filling her time fantasizing about their friend, MacNeil, over whom she has created such a personal and intimate scenario that she goes to the telephone and calls him, much to his confusion. It is a telling moment, one of several "epiphanies" showing the reader the way to each character's interior landscape.
An event takes place which saddens everyone and changes the dynamic of the event and of all the people involved. Arrangements are made that were unthought of at the beginning of the birthday celebration, most of which are more authentic than the roles they brought with them. There are big themes examined here: aging, parenthood, letting go, fertility, illness, and one's place in the universe of the family. Heidi Pitlor does a terrific job of making us care about a group of people who seem, at first blush, to be only selfish and solipsistic. --Valerie Ryan
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From Publishers Weekly
On a rainy summer weekend, the Miller clan gathers, for the first time in four years, at their summer house on an island off the coast of Maine to celebrate patriarch Joe's 75th birthday. Oldest son Daniel is in a wheelchair following a cycling accident; his wife, Brenda, is pregnant after having used a sperm donor, about whom Daniel is now obsessed. Younger son Jake, who spent his whole childhood feeling insecure and inferior to his siblings, is now more financially successful than either of them; his wife, Liz, is pregnant with twins following fertility treatments and has no interest in sex. The irresponsible youngest, Hilary, returns from the West Coast, also pregnant—and with no idea who the father is. As their children stand on the verge of becoming parents themselves, Ellen and Joe reflect on the daily heartbreak, tragedies and joys of parenthood, on the impossibility of ever keeping one's children safe. Rich in symbolism and a strong sense of place, Pitlor's debut novel, with its overlapping narrative perspectives, creates a multilayered portrait of family in all its fragility and its strength. (June)
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