three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
user_rating: 
0

A-The Ghost at the TableAll families might be dysfunctional, yet most strive for normalcy, year after year. When 40-something unmarried San Francisco writer Cynthia Fiske decides to go to New England to visit her perfect older sister, Frances, as well as Frances’s family, and their estranged elderly father for a Thanksgiving family reunion, decades of secrets, guilt, and resentment surface. Cynthia, who is writing a young-adult series Sisters of History, suspects that her father murdered their invalid mother 30 years back in order to marry a younger woman. Frances, of course, remembers things differently; nor is her life—or her children—as perfect as Cynthia assumes. It’s a typical Thanksgiving dinner, where each person reinvents the past in order to survive.
Algonquin. 304 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 1565123344

Entertainment Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"With the lightest of touches, Berne turns a witty tale of holiday dysfunction into a transfixing borderline gothic, her appealing heroine into an unreliable narrator seething with decades-old resentment." Jennifer Reese

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Suzanne Berne’s The Ghost at the Table reminds me of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, in which a mother collects her family for one last claustrophobic Christmas. Substitute sister for mother and Thanksgiving for Christmas, take out Franzen’s black humor and throw in dark suspense for scorching domestic intrigue." Jeffrey Ann Goudie

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"There’s almost no forward motion to the novel’s plot, but somehow this proxy battle between Cynthia and Frances over their childhood—an effort by each sister to enforce her own version of the past and dismiss the other’s memories as irrelevant or skewed—is enough to make The Ghost at the Table wholly engaging." Ron Charles

Charlotte Observer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Berne] captures the New England gloom and the quiet bitterness of the characters in deft strokes. Cynthia may behave badly, but her sardonic eye keeps the narrative from ever feeling maudlin." Pat MacEnulty

Chicago Sun-Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The structure of this book remains that of a mystery book, but the mystery is memory, and the detective work is impossible, precisely because of the interpretive nature of memory. … The book’s plot may be about a deathbed question, but its substance is about sisters." Gale Walden

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"The first half of the novel comes off as a conventional though entertaining satire of family angst. But then, as in Shakespeare’s dark comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, the light leaves the story, and characters fumble to find the truth—and one another—in the blackness." Daniel Dyer

Critical Summary

Suzanne Berne’s A Crime in the Neighborhood (1997), which won Great Britain’s Orange Prize, dealt with a murder, family desertion, and the transformative power of memory. Berne similarly mines sisterly tensions and the ambiguity of memory in Ghost at the Table; comparisons naturally arise to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. The scene that occupies the center of this dark novel flashes back to an invalid mother and her possible poisoning. Parallels between Cynthia’s family and that of her newest literary subject, Mark Twain, also abound. If Berne overplays her hand somewhat or never explores the death of the third Fiske sister, her novel’s troubling depiction of family angst might make your own relatives seem quite normal by comparison.