The story of the grown children who flee their rocky lives and flood the homes of their aging parents is a familiar one, both on the page and in real life. Who hasn’t felt at one time or another that life is too much—that if we could only become children again and nestle in our mothers’ arms everything would be okay? Of course, we also know how this story ultimately concludes. The parents eventually become fed up with 40-year-olds acting like teenagers (back-talking, kissing people they shouldn’t, refusing to clear out the dishwasher) and the adult children realize that parental love cannot solve real-world problems.
Such is the case with Meg Mitchell Moore’s debut novel The Arrivals. The book spans the course of one summer in which three grown siblings descend upon their parents’ idyllic Vermont home. We first meet the retired couple, Ginny and William, who are both loving and selfless but maintain old-fashioned attitudes toward parenting. Soon Lillian, whose husband Tom has cheated on her, arrives with her two small children in tow. Following closely behind, is Stephen and his pregnant, workaholic wife Jane. Finally, Rachel, shows up: a New Yorker on the cusp of 30, who just can’t get her professional and romantic life in order.
The one noticeable flaw in The Arrivals concerns Lillian and Rachel. Their problems are too familiar. Like countless unfaithful husbands before him, Tom sleeps with his younger, sexier secretary. Meanwhile, Rachel is often portrayed as a chick-flick-type heroine, simultaneously coveting and scorning her best friend’s affluence and imminent wedding. The lack of personalization here means we’re not terribly curious to know whether Lillian will return to Tom or whether Rachel will overcome her passivity. In terms of narrative momentum, then, the propelling force centers around Jane, (forced to go on indefinite bed-rest) and the fate of her unborn child. But is this enough to keep us reading?
In fact, the question turns out to be largely irrelevant. It’s not the large problems that drive The Arrivals but the small ones—Mitchell’s meticulous attention to detail and the vibrancy with which she portrays the complex emotions of family life. So many of the activities in this book are ordinary, but Mitchell presents them so truthfully and carefully that we start to see them anew.
When Lillian decides to leave her husband, she doesn’t simply tell her 3-year-old daughter to pack but gives her specifics: three of her favorite toys and all of her bathing suits. “All my bathing suits?” Olivia asks and her “eyes grew wide.” This is a simple, but poignant moment, all the more so because Olivia has no idea why she’s leaving home. Moore is similarly adept in describing the overwhelming routine of caring for a newborn. Moore writes of Lillian’s exhaustion, “The flowers in front of her seemed to have blurred their edges, and the sunlight reflecting off the deck chairs felt like a physical pain.” But then Moore gives us a palpable sense of what it feels like to hold a newborn, to feel an innate need to protect and love him unconditionally. Lillian thinks about her son’s first hours of life and “the boneless look his body had had… when he had curled like a semi-circle on her chest to nap… the alien shape of his head with which he had emerged from her womb, blinking and whimpering.” On every page, Moore embeds us in the scene and in the character’s point of view until we feel that we are the ones experiencing the act of breast-feeding, the non-stop (and often amusing) questioning of a toddler, the frustration of perpetually sticky countertops.
Moore is similarly adept at writing familial chaos, conveying confusion without ever letting the reader feel confused. During an early dinner scene, Moore highlights the central dramas and preoccupations of five adults, while two children wreak havoc around the table, one of them spilling milk all over Jane’s blackberry. In particular, this scene draws forth the vast differences in parenting approaches between Ginny, a traditional homemaker, and Jane, who intends to return to work immediately after maternity leave.
Jane’s view of motherhood and marriage, while increasingly common these days, is not (yet) much portrayed in literature. For this reason, she is the most compelling of the novel’s four women. Jane constantly subverts our expectations. We want to hate her because she’s a workaholic, but Moore won’t let us. Jane genuinely loves her husband. She just happens to also love her job—a lot. How can we fault her for answering her Blackberry at the dinner table when it makes her so darn happy?
After the baby comes, the couple has decided that Stephen will be a stay-at-home dad (he only makes “half a living” as a freelance writer and doesn’t seem terribly ambitious) and Jane will continue to work. Jane is a clearly a foil to Ginny in this respect, but we eventually see how similar the two women are. Unlike Rachel and Lillian who are lost for so much of the story, Jane and Ginny know themselves: what they believe, what they want, what they are capable of achieving. As much as they may struggle and fight, they eventually come to respect each other’s fortitude. And their resolution, like the best parts of The Arrivals, happens on a small and intimate scale. In the book’s final pages, Ginny visits Jane in the hospital and notices that the new mother has not nursed her baby long enough. “If Jane had been Lillian,” Moore writes, “she would have told her so, but Jane wasn’t Lillian so she kept her mouth shut.”
What this moment demonstrates—and what the best moments in The Arrivals show us—is that the decisions that shape a home, a family, or even life’s most difficult choices are often subtle and small. Even the ordinary is extraordinary if we look hard enough.