What happens when you wake up one morning and realize that the life you thought you've always wanted is everything but nothing like what you imagined? Would you have the courage to leave it all behind, to abandon the comfortable security of its familiarity, in search of fulfillment? These are the questions that Ted Thompson's The Land of Steady Habits (Little, Brown) sets out to explore.
In this impressive debut, Thompson delivers a vivid portrait of life in America’s suburban upper crust explored through a splintering family. Through sharply written prose and fiery dialogue, Thompson’s characters come alive: a recently retired husband on the brink of self-destruction; a conflicted wife in the midst of an affair; a middle-aged son in an “extended state of adolescence”; and a pair of pretentious neighbors with a precocious, rebellious teen. Together their lives, as they unravel and collide, weave a story that is at once honest, raw, heartbreaking, and comical.
The novel’s plot pivots around the cataclysmic decision of Anders Hill. Sparked by a long-brewing disgust with Wall Street greed and a society of decaying values in which he no longer wishes to participate, Anders decides to make a series of rash, life-altering choices; in his early-60s, he retires from his lucrative finance career, divorces the wife he’s loved since college, abandons his mortgage, and moves into a bachelor’s condo for reasons no one in his life seems to understand. In the aftermath, as his relationships with family and friends begin to cave around him, he is faced with the challenge of rebuilding an identity outside the security of family and routine, and repairing the damage he’s left in his wake.
The novel is set in a Connecticut suburb inhabited by affluent commuters: breadwinners who, like clockwork, make the daily dredge to their glamorous, high-rise Manhattan offices and then back to their picture-perfect colonial mansions to host glitzy dinner parties. This "land of steady habits" that Anders is so desperate to escape is one addled with wine-guzzling housewives, competitive patriarchs, rebellious teens, affluent drug use, and clandestine affairs. It's a world he shunned in his college years when he rejected the wealth of his father, a well-to-do judge, and the privileges it afforded, in exchange for a life of “dish scraping and book filing and towel folding” his way through a moderate college.
With wit and humor, Thompson narrates Anders’ tumultuous journey as he experiences a sort of second coming-of-age in his attempt to find fulfillment. As regret and self-doubt sink in, Anders embarks on a downward spiral — equipped with embarrassing voicemails, drunken proclamations, hallucinogenic-induced confessions, and extensive redecorating. On more than one occassion, he even finds himself inhaling illegal substances and engaging in high-induced philosophizing with his neighbors' teenage son Charlie Ashby, a boy in whom Anders sees parts of his own rebellious younger self.
The novel finds its real power in the authenticity of its characters, in Thompson’s ability to craft raw humans beneath the social pageantry of their external lives, relatable in their irritations, ethical lapses, and small triumphs. While Anders is the narrative’s central character, at various points the story is also told through the perspective of other major characters, including Anders’ younger son, Preston, also of the rebellious breed, who finds himself in his thirties living out of his car, still struggling to find a steady gig. Each character is made more vivid through sharp dialogue, internal monologues, and colorful snippets of backstory.
Thompson's novel is as much about family as it is about self-discovery and parent-child relationships play a key role in the plot’s emotional drive. Over the course of the narrative, we see three fraught father-son relationships played out: between Anders and his father, between Anders and Preston, and between Mitchell Ashby and his son Charlie. All three have distinct parallels, but each with very different consequences. Like Anders, Charlie and Preston too wish to rebel against the pre-scripted expectations of their affluent fathers. "That was adulthood wasn't it, the creation of a world just a little better than the one you were born into?" Anders ponders. Despite the wide age gaps between them, the three are undergoing similar identity crises at the same moment and they discover a shared connection as their lives dramatically affect one another in unexpected ways.
The Land of Steady Habits is about the complexity of family ties, the consequences of prosperity, the courage to rebel, and the possibilities of a second coming of age. Thompson displays a keen ability to capture human emotion and interior conflict, and it is this stunning realism that consistently captivates the reader. It calls us to reevaluate the lives we live, with all their vibrancy and monotony. Is there something more worth chasing — and what are willing to leave behind in order to seek it?
Image: Carrie McClean