When a book arrives with a press release proclaiming its author to be the new Anne Tyler it sets off alarm bells. Tyler’s fans love her for her wryly witty observations on social manners. Her novels are filled with the kind of characters her readers recognise in themselves, their families and friends. It’s much to Jennifer Close’s credit, then, that I hadn’t actually read the press release before I found myself comparing Things We Need to Tyler’s work. It’s the real deal.
It opens with Claire, still sore from her broken engagement to Doug, lurking in her apartment, facing yet another demand for rent she can’t pay and realising that the only option is to go home to her parents. Her sister Martha, bereft of social skills and something of a drama queen, has also returned home and is the obsessively tidy manager of a clothing store after finding that nursing wasn’t quite what she expected it to be. Weezy, their helicopter mother, is only too pleased to have them back while their father spends more and more time in his increasingly messy study. Add to this their younger and much loved brother Max, still in college but about to graduate, his eye poppingly gorgeous girlfriend Cleo and an unplanned pregnancy, and you have all the ingredients for a novel which explores the modern phenomenon of grown up children who won’t or can’t leave home.
Close handles this social comedy beautifully, smoothly shifting her narrative so that each character’s voice sings out. Martha’s attention seeking neediness is cringe worthy as she takes every opportunity to parade her lesbian cousin’s credentials in front of her gay colleague convinced of her own liberal coolness. Claire finds herself sleeping with her ridiculously handsome high school crush, both of them obsessively dissecting their broken engagements. Weezy continues to have meetings with Claire’s wedding planner long after her split with Doug, unable to let go of the attention she’s been enjoying. Cleo, daughter of a single mother coolly focussed on her successful career, is so aghast at her pregnancy she tries to cover it up by wearing sweaters in summer. All of this delivered with a sly, affectionate wit. Close is undoubtedly stronger on female characters than male but this is a small criticism of what is a highly entertaining and enjoyable novel which leaves the Coffey family just that bit better adjusted than when it opened. More, please!