Things We Need by Jennifer Close
22nd Aug 2013
Things We Need, Close’s delightful second novel, is called ‘The Smart One’ in her native USA. Changing it was a good decision. ‘The Smart One’ imbues the novel with a vaguely snide, sarcastic tone that doesn’t do it justice, and the implied obligation to choose who it refers to is a really tough job.
Perhaps it could be Weezy Coffey, the family matriarch, keeper of the ‘Things We Need’ kitchen list and still so keen for her grown-up children to have everything they could possibly ‘need’, that she ‘gifts’ them a family holiday at the shore every year (no matter how reluctant they are)?
Or one of her daughters – Martha, working in a shop because she couldn’t cope emotionally with her nursing career, still living at home, over-dramatic and obvious irritant to her psychiatrist? Or Claire, who is forced to move back home after her fiancé leaves and she runs up insurmountable debts?
Maybe the youngest, college student Max, or his ‘bombshell’ girlfriend Cleo, who has a strained relationship with her own mother and a father who was ‘never in the picture’? Or even Will, an academic who spends a lot of time in his study, being bewildered by his family?
It’s impossible to call, especially as the beauty of this book lies in Close’s ability to create real, flawed characters, sometimes smart, sometimes jaw-droppingly dumb but always so well-observed that the whole book feels searingly honest.
The scenarios Close creates throughout the book’s simple plot (Martha, Claire, Weezy and Will are forced to confront living as a family again until Max and Cleo are also obliged to move into the house) are buoyed by her impressive use of realistic dialogue, and willingness to occasionally make her characters act like twats.
That realism means it’s often a funny book, with scenes that should resonate with everyone who’s ever been a) part of a family or b) a teenage girl.Close generally goes for dry wit and subtlety, shaping some superb (and cringeworthy) family get-togethers, and moments of horrendous social awkwardness. Weezy’s reactionary mother Bets (“not like really racist but like old people racist”) gets some of the best, broadest lines.
Weezy herself is the fulcrum; a kind but frustrated mother, wife, sister and daughter whose behaviour during the book is occasionally heart-breakingly sad.
Her children are embarrassed by her, she continues planning Claire’s wedding, meeting caterers and choosing flowers, and we get flashbacks that every loving mother of adult children would recognise – the sadness of realising your children might not need you anymore, but not knowing how to stop sacrificing yourself for them:
“The crisp was actually her favourite, but there was nothing else that could be cut… without a lot of whining and complaining.”
Close manages to cover the whole gamut of relationships and their inevitable creakiness, without preaching or depressing her audience. While not everything works out perfectly, there is enough optimism at the conclusion of Things We Need to make even the most cynical reader smile.
And of course Weezy’s children still need her. The last line is completely perfect – it might seem a little trite at first read, but it embraces the whole book in its gentle simplicity and Close owes herself a big high-five for that one.
This novel won’t age well – there are too many pop culture references for that – but for now this is a hugely enjoyable, funny, sad parable for how we consumerist, have-it-all westerners live our lives.
And what it ultimately tells us, is that those of us fortunate to have family and friends who love and support us don’t really need any other things.
Things We Need was published last month by Chatto & Windus