Ever since Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina about happy families being all alike and unhappy ones all different, the line has become a yardstick for measuring other novels. With due deference to Tolstoy, then, the King family in Kaui Hart Hemmings's first novel is an unhappy one trying desperately to find its way towards happiness. In the process, it shows itself to be at once a very particular family indeed, and quite recognisably normal.
The Kings are the inheritors of large amounts of prime land in their native Hawaii. After generations of family ownership, they are on the cusp of selling, which would make them all rich, but cut them off from their history. The nuclear family, too, is in pieces, with Matt's wife, Joanie, in a coma after a motorboat accident, and their elder daughter, Alex, parcelled away in an elite boarding school to curb her drinking and drug-taking.
All this forces Matt into a position of responsibility he has long shrugged off. His attempts to connect with Alex and her 10-year-old sister, Scottie – to learn "the logic and language of girlhood" – and to come to terms with the revelation that Joanie had been having an affair, drive the novel over its week or so timeframe.
Hemmings is an assured writer, and her dazed, opportunistic style is very West Coast America. It's a perfect fit for Matt's advanced state of distraction: everything seems weird to him. He's appalled at how little he knows his daughters, at how much he comes to depend on Alex, and at Scottie's ability to mimic her mother. This is her, sitting at the bar in a beach club: "Everybody loves me, but my husband ignores me, guess I'll have to eat the worm. Give me a shot of Cuervo Gold, Jerry baby."
With all this micro-observation, the novel doesn't really move its focus much beyond the impending storm clouds of the two legacies: Joanie's living will, and the land sale. But what could be more modern than the story of an absent dad grappling with the demands of fatherhood? It is not to put The Descendants down to say that it could be a mature successor to chick-lit, a female fantasy of the idealised man stepping up to the plate while you lie dying in a hospital bed.
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