By Lisa Gornick
Sarah Crichton Books, Sept. 10, 2013
$26.00, 299 pages
Some books, like people, make a poor first impression. The cover art of Tinderbox lacks the gravitas of the book’s “mysterious stranger meets fragile family” premise. It features a photo of an open matchbook and a small plastic toy dinosaur on a white surface, surrounded by a pale pink border and topped by a light font. But, having heard good things about the book, the serious reader soldiers on, remembering the old saying about not judging a book by its cover.
The first section of the book doesn’t help matters; something about the exposition seems forced and heavy-handed. The characters, upper income Upper West Siders, seem cliched and not especially likable. The descriptions include too many labels and product names. It’s all just a little off-putting. But one doesn’t put a book down after only 25 pages. Have faith in the author and the story she has to tell; all will become clear.
Just as people who make a poor first impression can go on to become a close friend or even a spouse, so does Tinderbox slowly and steadily win over the reader. By page 50, most of your reservations will have been left behind, as the rising action pulls you in. By page 100, it has become a taut and absorbing story of a family laboring under manifold burdens and secrets. By page 200, it has utterly won you over with the quality of the writing, the probing insights into characters and conflicts, and — yes — the likability of the characters, of whom you have grown quite fond.
Lisa Gornick is a psychotherapist by training, and her background informs Tinderbox. The protagonist, Myra, is a middle-aged therapist working out of a ground floor office in her four-story home on West 95th Street. Her daughter Caro is the workaholic director of a preschool in East Harlem for underprivileged kids, with no love life to speak of. Myra has invited her son Adam, along with his wife, Rachida, and their young son, Omar, to live with her for the year while Rachida completes a respecialization fellowship to switch from dermatology to primary care. Adam is a feckless, phobic, and under-employed screenwriter of second-rate Westerns, obsessed with movies in the manner of an overgrown Film Studies major. Rachida is a driven Moroccan Jew who has married into a secular Jewish family. Myra’s ex-husband, Larry, is a cardiologist who has remarried and now lives in Tucson; their relationship is polite but distant.
Into this already fragile domestic drama comes Eva, a young girl from Peru who has been recommended to Myra by her cousin Ursula in Lima. She has had a difficult life, having lost her mother in a house fire when she was just a child. Interestingly, she is convinced that she is descended from a small group of Sephardic Jews living in the Amazon city of Iquitos, where Moroccan Jews had once settled to work in the rubber export trade. Myra, despite initial reservations, agrees to allow Eva to become the newly-expanded Mendelsohn family’s nanny. What follows is a textbook example of the expression “No good deed goes unpunished.” The law of unintended consequences plays itself out in such compelling fashion that readers will find themselves racing to the last page.
As is usually the case, the mysterious stranger is a far more complex person than is first believed. At first, all proceeds smoothly. But Eva has night terrors and sucks her thumb when she sleeps. She begins to reveal her horrific life story to Myra, who is torn between her desire to help and the obligations of psychotherapeutic ethics. At the same time, we learn that Adam and Rachida’s marriage is troubled and that each is guarding a potentially explosive secret. Then Eva discovers something about one of the family members that will cause this tinderbox to catch fire, both literally and figuratively. As Gornick so powerfully puts it, Eva is the match that lights the kindling of Myra’s good intentions.
Gornick has written a smart, adult domestic drama that explores the varied family members’ lives and the many fraught relationships that can exist within one family. These are characters with realistic foibles who are trying their best to manage the many roles they each play and the expectations placed upon them by others. While the resolution may be too neatly constructed, it makes for an emotionally satisfying conclusion, for the reader has come to care deeply about these very human and all-too-familiar characters.