Julia Pierpont’s book opens with a bang and, like a lot of things in life, ends in a whimper. This is not a complaint, but a reflection on how true-to-life her novel moves: from vertiginous opening to a brittle, quiet end. Among the Ten Thousand Things almost promises a wild unrealism, but delivers one of those stories that is just about life – timeless, resilient, full of small every day sufferings. It is an interesting literary juxtaposition, but structured interestingly with characters whose reliability is smackingly immediate.
It is a regular little New York family: husband, wife; daughter, son. Jack Shanley is a well-known artist, part ego, part talent, part zeitgeist, and part charm; his wife is Deb a beautiful aged former ballerina who has generally skilfully avoided confronted Jack’s shortcomings. Until a package sent to Deb is instead picked up by her children: an anonymous delivery, it contains sheaves of printed emails almost grotesquely detailing Jack’s (latest?) affair.
It cannot be ignored now because it is not just Deb’s happiness at stake but that of her children as well. It is a little exhausting to come across another sacrifice-everything-mother character trope but in this case it is so real it hurts: Deb’s career stopped for Jack, her identity is supporting her talented and infuriating husband, raising her small and often ungrateful children. The reason this trope is somewhat more acceptable in Among the Ten Thousand Things is because her meaning, her life, is established beyond these parameters once Jack’s betrayal is dealt with. Deb emerges a fully-realised character, heart broken and furious; a phoenix.
The story-telling style is interesting here. Broken into three parts we switch around the one big defining point in this family’s life – the delivery of the cardboard box – and each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective. We open with the nameless other half of the affair, writing her letter to Deb, and never return. The rest of the story is Deb, Jack, the children; slipping seamlessly into those little alterations that define each of those characters’ inner monologues. But it is not overworked or too cutesy. For example, we can have the younger daughter grappling with the fear of the enormity of change without regressing into infantilism:
“She walked to the porch and sat down on its lowermost step. The house was like a pirate ship alive behind her, beached up from the ocean bottom. The planks, the little rugs and the railing, everything she touched left a trace of itself on her fingers.”
Unlike the cover claims, this is not the funniest or most startling book I have read in a long time (unlike Jonathan Safran Foer) but it is very honest, not quite raw, a quiet achiever. It is hard to say why I enjoyed this book, where the compulsion to keep reading came from, but its brittle reality, its tight observation, its lightness in poetry – because life in this situation does not have a lot of poetry – made me understand it, made me feel it was true to life. Among the Ten Thousand Things is a sad moment in a family’s life achingly, fully realised.