Family of Origin

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 Jul 2019

Member Reviews

This is probably one of the most complicated books I have ever reviewed. 
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The premise was well done and it was truly one of the smartest novels I have ever read.
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My main problem with it...I wanted to put it down for approximately 75% of the novel. The last 25%....was amazing. 
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I have really thought about this book a lot and I think it will stay with me. It just truly felt like a lot of work. 
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I’m ending with three stars and would recommend this novel...but to a very select group 🤷🏻‍♀️.
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This is an engrossing, sad, funny and moving story of two adult siblings who are lost - they are lost from each other, they don't know their places in the world or who their families are. It is a darkly comic novel about loss and the environment and the ways in which people try to escape from change, driven by a strong plot and good writing.
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A well written story about a complicated family. The pacing of the book is perfect, with a bit of jumping around that doesnt jumble up the main story. There is a good mystery, along with fantasy elements, but believable. All around great read!
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I was looking forward to reading this because I'd enjoyed other work by the author, but I was disappointed. While the writing is solid and the concept of family is explored in depth here, I found the characters to be lacking depth and humanity. The supposed surprises and shocking events of the past are neither, and the characters' many irrational ideas and actions came across as silly and foolish. The in medias res structure of the book--where there are flashbacks going increasingly far back from the book's present--felt messy and over done. One or two major flashbacks, sure, but by the end of the book, the farthest-away flashbacks felt irrelevant and impeded the flow of the narrative.
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“Because it meant that she could stop staring over her shoulder at everything that had come before, searching for the day that came before the pain. There was no place further back to go. To find any kind of happiness, Elsa would have to turn around.”

Okay. So, this book reminded me of Tell the Wolves I'm Home. Not that the plots are that similar (although both did have family members in love with each other) but in that they both made me so deeply uncomfortable that I didn't really know whether I even liked the book until I got to the end and realized I loved it. Any heavy examination of plot will ruin your enjoyment of this novel, so I don't want to say much beyond the plot summary. I would encourage people when they reach the moment where they say WTF?!?!?! to give it a chance and keep reading. The weirdness is still weird but so much is explained. Sorry for the cryptic remarks but I really don't want to spoil the reading experience for anyone. 

Another comparison I could make is to the works of Barbara Kingsolver for the way it examines both the environment, and dysfunctional family relationships, and the way that these two issues mirror each other. The title Family of Origin becomes more and more evocative the further you get into the book - there are elements of Darwinism, environmentalism, found families, dysfunctional families, etc. that all could contribute to the meaning of the title. I love a title with multiple meanings!
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Family stories are always complicated. Nolan and Elsa Gray are no exception. Estranged for many years, they reunite to travel to their father's field station off of the Gulf Coast - where their father has recently drowned. 

Stuck on the island - Nolan and Elsa look back into the past and see the fights and secrets that tore them apart all those year ago. 

This book is delightfully funny, but still very heart warming. Families are hard. 

Thanks to netGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review this book.
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The story of estranged half siblings traveling to the research island where their father died. Overall an engaging read with a few minor problems. The good: traveling back and forth in time revealing history in phases works well here; also, the backstories of the scientists are especially interesting. The not as good: the 2 main characters are difficult to like or even sympathize with. The author’s main premise seems to be that life is ultimately disappointing so try hard to appreciate what’s around you even if you spend half your life at it. That theme gets a bit tiresome and the siblings seem to grow at an excruciatingly slow pace. The lessons we are supposed to learn about evolution in reverse is not only bad science but doesn’t connect well with the siblings’ story overall.
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Interesting novel about a researcher who questions the effects of global warming and reverse evolution on ducks.  He dies while out swimming in the storm, so his half-sibling daughter and son reunite after many years to collect his remains, try to discover if he committed suicide, and if there was any truth to his research, while questioning their own history.
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'Elsa and Nolan Grey might have been happier if they could be forgetful, or dead, but they were not. The Greys remembered everything. 

They were fondlers of old grudges and conjurers of childhood Band-Aid smells. They were rescripters of ancient fights and relitigators of the past. The were scab-pickers and dead-horse-beaters and wallowers of the first order.'

Could it really be? Could evolution be going in reverse? A group of scientists, researchers and naturalists known as the Reversalists on the Gulf Coast believe it is so. Studying a rare species of duck, the Undowny Bufflehead, having discovered its feathers are not waterproof serves as a sign that evolution has reversed it’s course. Subsequent to their father’s death by drowning, the Grey siblings join one another at Watch Landing on Leap Island to make sense of it all. With the knowledge that their father Dr. Ian Grey retreated to the island under the umbrella of shame for entertaining such an outlandish theory based on a ‘ridiculous’ duck of all things, Elsa is filled with fury. Surely he didn’t believe such a crackpot theory, not a man as intelligent as her father!

There is no love lost between the siblings, in Elsa’s eyes Nolan is needy and weak, despite looking so much like their father and having spent years ‘sucking up their father’s time’ he certainly didn’t inherit the old man’s genius. When her father left he started his ‘new family’ with Nolan’s mother Keiko, a microbiome researcher. The real wound for Elsa was in all her father’s disappearances, the first costing her the joys of life at the farmhouse her mother Ingrid (a nurse), she and Dr. Grey lived at. Nolan, forever the usurper of her former life, of course as a child she hated him. Nolan’s feelings for Elsa are tangled up, having an effect on every relationship and choice in his life. Elsa, always ‘taking up more space than she deserved’ in his mind and heart. There is a fault line beneath them created by actions in their past, something Elsa does her utmost best to avoid.

Family of origin is often defined as the people who care for you, your siblings, people you grow up with and certainly a fitting title as Elsa and Nolan suffer the miseries created by their own. Mostly blame for their dysfunctional upbringing to be laid at their father’s feet, cold from his watery grave. Who swims in a storm? Was it an accident or something worse? Nolan and Elsa are equally shocked to know that Ian’s fellow islanders took his work seriously. The two certainly feel that coming here could have been just another escape from them, could the duck and their father’s belief in reversalism really just be about his own children, their lack of evolution as competent successful offspring?

Elsa struggles in her own day-to-day, teaching children, with a terrible lapse in judgement just before Nolan’s call about their father. Not dealing well with people in general, living life in a numbed state, just floating along. She longs for escape that would put a vast distance between her and others, much further than Dr. Ian and his little island could have hoped to be. Meeting Esther Stein who holds a PhD in ecology, her disdain for the youth is obvious, with all their ‘allergies’ and inability to venture into the very environment they live in. It’s hard to deny all the young adults and children are changing as much as the ducks. People are no longer adapting! Just look around, you’ll see it too! The Millennials are ruining the species, coddled, weak and if their dad believed that to be true as much as Esther, than he didn’t believe in his own children, right? That stupid duck is a representation of their own failure.

This story is about confronting the past, and the real mystery is between Nolan and Elsa more than their father’s death. Elsa can run off to another planet but isn’t going to erase what’s between them. There are secrets to uncover but does knowing change their personal history, the weight they have carried because of it? What happens when the object of your anger is gone, or the person you resented is more victim than the villain of the story you thought was set in stone? One thing is certain, Elsa and Nolan are far more curious a study than the rare species of duck! It doesn’t take a fictional story to nudge us in the direction that we humans often seem to be hopeless creatures, destroying our environment and much of the novel seems hopeless in that aspect. Worse, we tend not to evolve in our personal surroundings too, as evidenced by the Grey siblings. We carry the wrong stories, and poison our own well so to speak and of course we can blame our ‘family of origin’ for that, at least Elsa and Nolan can. How are we to understand the natural world when we live with so much subterfuge coming at us from all directions? Nolan and Elsa are forced to face their own hopelessness, and maybe change direction because it’s not really about the duck.

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

Doubleday Books
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Last year, I met CJ Hauser when she came for a guest lecture and reading at the college where I worked at the time. As part of the reading, she read from the first chapter of her recently finished, as yet untitled novel about two half-siblings who visited a commune of pseudo-scientists following their father's death.

But in truth, Family of Origin isn't really about the siblings' visit to the Reversalists, a group that believes evolution is going backwards, as evidenced by a duck species that has lost its waterproofing, and by those damn millennials ruining everything. Instead, it's about their deeply troubled, screwed-up family history. I was really impressed at how Hauser continually built up to the reveal of the family's deepest, darkest secret. Each time you think you're about to learn this secret, you learn some smaller secret instead. But as the yarn continues to unwind, bits and pieces from earlier in the book make more and more sense. Her use of flashbacks to communicate multiple points of view is especially notable. (Less appealing: her lack of quotation marks around dialogue. Sounds edgy, is actually just confusing.)

Of course, the trouble with this setup is that once the big secret is finally revealed, it's all falling action. Pretty soon after, the flashbacks seem less and less intriguing, and more and more unnecessary. And yet, the ending felt a bit rushed, too easy. I am, however, a sucker for a happy ending, and the final confrontation, lowkey though it was, was satisfying.

Family of Origin isn't going to make my list of must-read novels, nor is it necessarily one that I see myself returning to, but it is intriguing (though not compelling) and, surprisingly enough, sexy. It also shows off Hauser's impressive characterization skills to great effect. It's a welcome addition to current literary fiction.
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It starts off slow and kind of dense, but once the action begins, it's hard to resist the story as it drives forward. It reads as a true epic, one that makes you feel the world really has been reshaped as you read it. Would recommend.
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