Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners
“Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners reminds us that laughter can be both enlightening and uplifting.”
“Without laughter, there’s only tears,” the author quoting her mother at a difficult time in their lives underscores Gretchen Anthony’s debut novel. Though chock full of life-testing complications for its characters Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners exempts the reader from any weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Violet Baumgartner is firmly established as the head of this middle-class Minnesota family, while her husband, Ed, has spent a life bringing up the rear, you might say, having just retired as a distinguished researcher into Functional Bowel Disorders. Violet plans a party to celebrate his career and wants it to be a spectacular success like everything she plans.
It appears that the raison d'etre in Violet’s life is gathering suitable material for her annual Christmas letter. Her past letters—along with sundry invitations and announcements—are stitched into the narrative and provide a clever source of backstory as well as humor.
For these year-end reviews are delightful parodies of the cliché-ridden, self-promoting and gag-inducing epistles one is all too familiar with. In one letter, she speaks of receiving “a reminder of my blessings as I work to fulfill the expectations of a happily married life, of being a good wife to my husband, of making a house into a home. (Goodness, I’m getting philosophical! I beg your patience!)”
The letters also supply much of the novel’s poignant irony as they forecast a promising future that, inevitably, falls short of expectations.
Much of Violet’s disappointment centers on her daughter Cerise, whose personal life choices offer serious challenges to her mother’s ambitions for her.
Past clippings from the local paper about child Cerise’s extraordinary achievements—“the only child in her fourth grade class to do a current events report on the disturbing rise of antibiotic-resistant bacterium strains, as documented in the PBS program, Nova”—underscore Violet’s desperate need for all things perfect to happen in her home.
Family Comes First is the credo she affirms in one Christmas letter when she describes how, that very year, she stamped out her adolescent daughter’s “misguided, teenage brush with disloyalty” in electing to forego tea with her parents so she could attend a chick-flick with a friend who’d already seen it four times.
Her husband’s retirement party has little chance of living up to its promise, like pretty well everything else in Violet’s stage-managed life, and, sure enough, the event throws up the first of several indiscreet revelations about what’s really going on in this family, with near calamitous results.
Of course there are tears—of embarrassment, rage, anguish, and desperation. But they’re shed by the characters, not the reader who’s kept high and dry by the author’s commitment to the comic side of catastrophe.
There’s hardly a comic plot left that hasn’t been worked to death, nor a cliché left unturned by movies and TV serials working to time-tested formulae, but Ms. Anthony happily takes them on and reshapes them.
So if daughters tend to marry their fathers, Cerise, already being her father, says she could hardly marry herself. Mysteriously pregnant, and finally blessed with boobs, she remembers the “rectangle with legs” that she was before.
Her mother’s friend, Eldris, has a habit of nodding repeatedly before she speaks—“It was as if her head was a Boggle cube that she had to shake and wait for the letters to settle before making words.”
The two husbands, Ed and Richard, being men after all, had “a conversational bandwidth that ended at quarterbacks and the PGA.”
And Kyle, Eldris and Richard’s son whom Cerise kind of dated in high school, always struck her as “somewhat synthetic, the male version of those cheese slices she’d watched Eldris put on his sandwiches as a child—real-looking, but wrapped in a flimsy plastic shell.”
Kyle’s parents want the relationship to develop but Richard was always skeptical and once said to his son, “Look. If you and Cerise haven’t started doing the stuff your mom and I don’t want to hear about, you’re never gonna get to do that stuff with her.”
Much of the plot turns on matters of secrecy among members of the Baumgartners and the even more dysfunctional Eldris and Richard, and son Kyle.
An optometrist now, “the variety of eye doctor, Violet was keen to remember, that did not require an MD,” Kyle becomes involved with a charity group called Eyeshine, that distributes used spectacles to third-world countries. But his laudable enterprise inexplicably becomes a matter of national security and he finds himself in trouble, first with the FBI, and then with his fiancée, Rhonda, over another issue that he also intended to be an act of charity.
Complications of plot and personality simmer nicely through the novel and come to the boil during the christening dinner for Cerise’s newborn. A scene of cringe-worthy humiliations, attacks and counterattacks reminiscent of Last Tango in Halifax and the zanier episodes of Grace and Frankie leave shattered illusions and fractured alliances among the broken dining-room furniture. Even worse happens next morning in the church, with everyone present.
We know that the contents of this year’s Christmas letter will be carefully edited.
Ms. Anthony’s writing is effortless, as good writing is always made to appear, while she remains concealed behind a deft narrator who moves us in and out of the main characters’ perspectives.
Our journey along this comic high road takes us past some dark woods, but we are never invited to dwell in them. But neither does the novel strain for laughs on every page. The characters are funny because of who they are, and the author doesn’t sell their souls to the laugh track. We care about them more than we don’t, and we believe in them as much as we need to for the story to work.
In her interview Gretchen Anthony says she wants readers to draw resilience from her novel, knowing that really bad things will happen in life. “And when they do, we get to grab on to whatever lifeline gets us through, to prove that even our worst moments can hold more than awfulness and pain.”
While the book is not a total escape from life’s slings and arrows, it offers a welcome distraction. In most plot-driven novels the characters, however engaging, tend to be passengers, and when their experiences draw more laughs than blood, they seldom have much to tell us about life that we didn’t already know.
“All’s well that ends exactly as you like it” might aptly summarize a novel that carries the day with more humor than wisdom. But in our times we need both, and Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners reminds us that laughter can be both enlightening and uplifting.