The curse and blessing of having your local library branch be mediocre at best is that you are forced, if you're too lazy to reserve books that can come from other branches or to go to those other branches, to consider books that you otherwise might have ignored. Sometimes this results in truly delightful reads, but other times.... In this manner I stumbled across Adrienne Miller's The Coast of Akron, a story of family dysfunction that should make almost anyone feel good about his or her own family. The story revolves around four central characters -- Lowell, the semi-famous artist known for his self-portraits that mysteriously stopped being made five years earlier; Jenny, his ex-wife; Merit, Jenny's and Lowell's daughter; and Fergus, Jenny's ex-best friend and now Lowell's lover.
The story is told from three perspectives -- Merit's and Fergus's in the present, and Jenny's in the past, through the journals she kept beginning thirty years ago. Jenny's journals tell us about the incredibly charismatic Lowell, and show how she lost something by putting herself within Lowell's orbit. And even though much of the present tales are about Merit and Fergus, so too are they about the unhappiness that Lowell seems to create around him. So much of their sorry lives, it seems, can be traced back to Lowell in some way. Merit dove into a marriage with someone so clearly wrong for her, but so clearly because he is the anti-Lowell. This mismatch has resulted in her increasingly self-destructive behavior. Fergus "won" Lowell from Jenny, and his life appears much the worse because of his Pyrrhic victory. He skulks around his own mansion, largely afraid of encountering this man he loves. Although Jenny has finally broken away from Lowell in one sense, her life seems never to have recovered. Interestingly, even though Lowell is the epicenter of the dysfunction, the story has very little of his presence.
The writing is generally engaging, and the flawed characters encourage sympathy if not empathy. The story builds toward a giant party thrown by Fergus at Lowell's request. Sadly though, the closer I got to the ending, the less I enjoyed the book. It seems that Miller became more interested in the journey and forgot to include a destination, as evidenced by the spectacularly awful and absurdly improbable ending. Calling it an ending, however, may be an overstatement, as the end of the book resolves nothing.