Ted Thompson has arrived with the very literary, very readable novel, The Land of Steady Habits, a debut not to be missed by avid readers of contemporary American family drama. Set mostly in the affluent neighborhoods of suburban Connecticut with the majority of flashback scenes taking place in a small college town in Maine, Thompson’s novel concerns the newly retired Anders Hill and the predicaments that befall him the first holiday season after his divorce to longtime wife, Helene. Alternating between chapters focusing on Anders and Helene (a few chapters appear from the perspective of their troubled son, Preston), The Land of Steady Habits seems indebted to the tales of other noted northeastern writers such as Updike and Cheever while updating the themes of upper-class malaise and family dysfunction without losing any of the propped-up sophistication or caustic wit. But among contemporary authors, The Land of Steady Habits reads like a Franzen novel without the overbearing need to make grand, eloquent statements about contemporary family life and without the unnecessary, shoehorned digressions into environmentalism, foreign policy discourse, or any other number of tangential twenty-first century concerns, which is to say the novel barely exceeds two-hundred and fifty pages while creating a narrative that’s commendable as much for its development of characters as it is for its construction of a tightly-plotted story. In sum, it’s a delightful reading experience and certainly to be one of the better debut novels to arrive this year.
As with other finely-written dramas covering the disintegration of an American family, The Land of Steady Habits manages to be both poignant and humorous without slipping into sentimentality or slapstick. Readers will recognize the skill Thompson has in balancing such emotions from the onset, as the novel begins with Anders considering the benefits—rather than the burdens—of his divorce: he no longer has to attend the dreaded holiday party at the Ashby household. The tradition had always reminded Anders of his age and his status in life, things he’d sooner forget rather than be repeatedly made aware of:
[T]he Ashby’s holiday party had become a sort of emblem of obligation to Anders, a reminder, at the end of his marriage, of the kind of man he’d become, when at last year’s party, after three quick whiskeys and a squabble with Helene about their grown children, he’d turned and announced to the room that they hadn’t had sex in five months, and, even though he was over sixty, it wasn’t because of his penis either.
So naturally, after his divorce, Anders receives an invitation to attend the yearly holiday party, and in a move that characterizes Anders almost immediately, he believes he still has an obligation to attend. And he does—an invited but ultimately unwelcomed guest—entering a party whose guest list also includes Helen and her new boyfriend, Donny, Anders’ long ago college roommate. And naturally, as these things tend to play out, Anders makes a fool of himself, slipping outside and somewhat accidentally partaking in a toke of laced marijuana with the Ashby’s son, Charlie. By the end of the first chapter, a smoothly-handled twenty pages, Anders has embarrassed himself at a party he wasn’t meant to attend and seemingly linked himself to the Ashby’s son, who’s dragged upstairs in the final pages, apparently suffering from some kind of overdose.
What follows is Anders’ attempt to settle himself into a new, single lifestyle, his main problem being that he’s retired early with the hopes of living off the sale of the home where he and Helene once resided. The problem is that he’s allowed Helene to continue living in the house without telling her he can’t sustain himself as a new retiree if he’s still paying for the house, and having not kept up with payments, Anders is anything but living a life of steady habits.
While this setup allows Thompson to comment on a slew of contemporary issues related to consumerism and twenty-first century financial dilemmas, the novel doesn’t linger in these areas, and when not following Anders’ efforts to reimagine himself as an aging, successful newly-single American male, Thompson does capture some marvelous scenes of Helene and her struggle with overcoming breast cancer, asserting herself in her given profession, and building new relationships with old flames and her youngest son. While Anders may serve as Thompson’s main protagonist, Helene more often serves as the heart of The Land of Steady Habits, her sections of the novel featuring the more poignant sections that will appeal to readers in search of less humor and more authentic heart.
By the novel’s conclusion, Thompson has positioned his main characters to reconvene at another holiday gathering, this time under greater dramatic circumstances. An unexpected death leaves all in attendance of Helene’s Christmas Eve dinner understandably edgy and confrontational, and the results make for some tense situations that again show Thompson’s ability to merge conflict with black humor. A dead turtle and a concussion-causing candlestick may not seem like the likeliest of causes for a satisfying ending for a debut novel, but such is the makeup of Thompson’s conclusion, and like everything else in The Land of Steady Habits, Thompson pulls it off handily and with more than enough talent to entertain and intrigue readers.