The last word I would ever use to describe my father is “absent.” He was — IS — one of the most involved, loving, supportive fathers I have ever met. Even when my career changes caught him by surprise, he never tried to discourage me and always became my number one fan. Last I heard, he’d managed to get his hospital to carry THE GIRLS’ GUIDE TO LOVE AND SUPPER CLUBS in their book store. I have visions of my bright pink cover sitting next to a copy of GRAY’S ANATOMY.
So imagine my bemusement upon realizing many of my favorite novels involve complicated father-son or father-daughter relationships, often with absent and/or ne’er-do-well fathers. Where did that come from?
Surely any complicated family relationship — parent-child, siblings, and otherwise — adds layers to a novel and makes for good storytelling. But what is it about fathers? And why, so often, do we find ourselves reading about their absence rather than their presence? A few examples, from some of my favorite authors:
Everything Changes, by Jonathan Tropper: In this novel by one of my favorite authors, Norm — the protagonist Zack’s eccentric, Viagra-popping father — reappears after being out of the picture for about two decades. Norm inspires Zack to make some changes in his own life, but not all goes according to plan. Zack’s relationship with Norm drives and defines his development as a character and as a man.
Empire Falls, by Richard Russo: All of Russo’s novels deal with father-son relationships to some extent, but what makes this one stick out in my mind is the juxtaposition of the protagonist Miles Roby’s relationship with his slovenly, wacky father Max and with his daughter Tick. Max wasn’t around much when Miles was growing up, and yet Miles is very much a present father in his own daughter’s life. For the record, I found Max — with his lack of both a filter and personal hygiene — highly entertaining.
Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese: The main character in this book — a twin born out of the secret relationship between an Indian nun and a British surgeon — spends his whole life chasing the legacy of his father, who went AWOL after the mother died in childbirth. His father reappears many years later, in a surprising twist.
The Song Remains the Same, by Allison Winn Scotch: The protagonist Nell — named after Eleanor Rigby by her father — loses her memory in a plane crash and must put the pieces of her life back together. As her memory begins to resurface, often triggered by music, she gets flashes of the father she barely knew, a reclusive artist who abandoned his family. Much of the book centers on Nell making peace with her father’s absence and, as she puts it, “burying old ghosts.”
Good in Bed, by Jennifer Weiner: Modeled after Weiner’s own absent father, Cannie Shapiro’s emotionally abusive father leaves when Cannie is young and basically tells her not to think of him as a father anymore (nice, huh?). He also frequently chides her about her weight, a major issue Cannie struggles with throughout her life. The emotional scars he leaves follow her into adulthood and color her relationships with men.
So what is it about absent fathers? Do any of your favorite books feature fathers like these?
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