Suburban Melodrama, Hope in ‘Forgiven’

'May We Be Forgiven' by A.M. Homes (Viking Adult)

If anything can go wrong, it will. This statement, commonly referred to as Murphy’s Law, is the underlying foundation beneath the novel “May We Be Forgiven.” In her latest novel, A.M. Homes takes a modern suburban household to hell and back over the course of one year. They turn from a stereotypical nuclear American family to a patched-up conglomerate of a single father, three adolescent children, two senior citizens, and the owners of a local Chinese restaurant. In this forcefully sardonic and deeply touching novel, Homes proves the power of familial ties and asserts that people can find love even in the most absurd situations.

The novel jumps straight into action through the narration of Harold Silver, a middle-aged university professor with an obsession for Richard Nixon and a blasé attitude toward life. When Harold begins to have an affair with his sister-in-law Jane, the fallout is maddening and chaotic. Harold finds himself divorced and given guardianship over his niece, his nephew, and an orphan named Ricardo. The novel chronicles Harold’s struggle to play a responsible role; he soon gets in over his head, however, with issues ranging from criminal lawsuits to casual forays into online sex.

Due to the oft-comical but otherwise frightening situations in which Homes arbitrarily places him, Harold’s trajectory in the novel focuses around avoiding circumstances where he could jeopardize the wellness of his family. Homes paints Harold at first as an apparently thoughtless and dull man, but his character grows to become the ultimate altruist who understands the fundamental importance of his role as the glue that holds the pieces of his fragmented family together.

The solidarity that Harold displays while taking care of his brother’s children is a manifestation of his devotion to them, despite the fact that he never had any obligation to them before the accident. “With the children gone, the tick-tock of the kitchen clock is deafeningly loud,” Harold says. “I walk around the house in circles.”

Without dependents to take care of, Harold is lost within himself. Only through the time he spends with the children and house can he discover emotions that he never though he had, and come to terms with the harrowing consequences of his brother’s actions after the cheating scandal.

“The truth is, despite how stressful it all is—not to mention the uncanny sensation that the minute you start to think it’s all going well something is bound to fall apart—despite it all, I am pleased with how well the children are doing,” Harold reflects while planning his nephew’s bar mitzvah, a loving gesture that echoes Jane’s former devotion to her children. The pressure to remain sane and responsible during a time of extreme volatility is an obstacle that every character in “May We Be Forgiven” must face; this struggle sheds a light on the uncanny ability for people to be rational and caring even in the most intense situations. Homes stresses a heartwarming implication that when things go wrong, a person finds comfort in the ordinary and relies even more on love from those who are closest.

Indeed, “May We Be Forgiven” is so poignant because of its truthfulness—Homes does not hold back and writes with raw realism of the characters’ evaluations of themselves and their understanding that dreams very rarely come true. “Is this what I’ve been waiting for?” asks Harold at one point in the novel. Homes explores his maturing perspective when Harold realizes that his life’s work researching President Nixon will never be published. Instead of causing him to dramatically spiral downward, he rather amends his life goal to one that is more reachable in his current state.

Harold’s decision to change his goals, needs, and desires for the sake of those he loves is a realistic scenario that signals a step towards his own maturity. Each character in the novel, from Harold’s 11-year old niece Ashley to the elderly abandoned Cyrus, goes through a process of compromise. “Was there ever a time you thought,” Harold wonders in the novel’s epigraph, “I am doing this on purpose, I am fucking up and I don’t know why.” This witty breaking of the fourth wall calls for the reader’s reflection on past actions and helps forge an emotional connection with the novel’s bittersweet scenarios. Despite any seeming randomness or stupidity of an action, Homes asserts that even mistakes may lead to something bigger, such as a more in-depth understanding of oneself and an opportunity for personal growth.

“It is magical, almost fantastical, and what I’d call the good kind of melancholy—as sweet as it is, it’s also sad,” remarks Harold. “Thanksgiving. It has been a year—and a lifetime.” The sheer force of change that can occur to a random family over the course of only a year serves as a necessary reminder that nothing is ever static. A. M. Homes has created a literary masterpiece that weaves together a deep understanding of the human psyche under stress; at the same time, she comments intelligently on the need for thoughtfulness and compassion. “May we be forgiven; it is a prayer, an incantation,” she writes at the end of the novel. In the end, the book’s message shows that only when one finds what they believe in can they grant themselves forgiveness for their sins; and personal forgiveness ultimately may be the only way in life to move forward.

—Staff writer Jihyun Ro can be reached at jihyunro@college.harvard.edu.

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