I’ve got a set of cocktail napkins that features a drawing of a woman above a word balloon declaring: “If I’d have known he was going to be a writer, I would have been a better parent.” This could be the motto of the Minot clan, which has spawned not one but three writers inspired by the family’s emotional depths. In 1986, Susan Minot introduced the basic drama — alcoholic father, mother killed in a car crash — in the spare, elliptical collection, Monkeys; 13 years later, her sister Eliza took on similar material in her novel The Tiny One. Now, brother George weighs in with The Blue Bowl, a novel that differs from its predecessors in certain respects, but can’t stay away from the basic issues at their collective heart. The story of Simon Curtis, a 30-something painter, The Blue Bowl evokes a spectacularly stunted adulthood, one constrained entirely by the traumas of the past. Simon, after all, is an adult in name only; a drifter, he keeps returning to family homes in Maine or Massachusetts, despite his father’s admonitions to stay away. Simon and his father want nothing to do with each other; each holds the other accountable for a host of real and imagined sins. But when the father is murdered, and Simon is discovered in an upstairs bedroom, the family situation grows increasingly surreal.
It’s a promising setup, if only because The Blue Bowl covers ground many readers will have seen before. Minot, however, doesn’t live up to his subject — or maybe the burden of history is too strong. The book feels diffuse, a domestic saga that becomes a courtroom drama, then turns into a portrait of psychological disarray. Yet even more distracting is our confusion over who, exactly, narrates the story; “My brother, like a bird, in his annual spring migration up to Maine, stopped off, as usual, at the other end of my buzzer in New York,” the book begins, only to yield almost immediately to a more traditional third-person approach. It’s too bad, for The Blue Bowl includes some vivid writing, especially in the first hundred pages. In the end, though, it could use a more consistent point of view.
THE BLUE BOWL | By GEORGE MINOT | Knopf | 384 pages $24 hardcover