in Great Neck”
Yona Zeldis McDonough
New American Library, $15
Is it possible to change the deeply set attitudes of a family all in one day? Can grudges and ancient jealousies be forgotten in a stormy sea of events that culminate in one glorious wedding? Through the pages of “A Wedding in Great Neck,” a delightful novel written with humor and charm, Yona Zeldis McDonough provides the key to the transformation.
Don and Betsy Silverstein have invited the family to their luxurious home in Great Neck for the wedding of Angelica, Betsy’s youngest of four from her first marriage. In order to awaken fresh for the celebration, they arrive the night ahead at the big house, with its half dozen or more bedrooms and bathrooms, outbuildings, manicured lawns, pool, and rose gardens.
The novel opens with Gretchen, near 40, the oldest of the four, awakening in her unfamiliar room. She is studying her reflection in the magnifying mirror provided. “Slight puffiness under the eyes — check. Dark circles — check. A gradual deepening of the nasal-labial lines; small, red bump on her right cheek; slightly loosened flesh under the jawline — check, check, check.”
She dismisses the self-scrutiny as adolescent, wallowing instead in self-pity as she thinks of her younger sister. “Angelica had it all: the looks, the brains, and the attitude. Even the name: how to compare the celestial ‘Angelica’ with the relentlessly earthbound ‘Gretchen’?” More often just “Gretch”: “It had a most unfortunate resemblance to retch.” She loathed her nickname. Even Don, Betsy’s wealthy husband, dotes on Angelica. And in this respect he is identical to Lincoln, her father.
But Gretchen is haunted by an even more serious problem. One she’s afraid to confront. Something frightening is happening to Justine, her own 15-year-old daughter (twin to Portia, her sister). She “could feel it, smell it, practically taste it, but the barrier her daughter had erected made it impossible” to locate the pain or do anything to help.
To top it all, she discovers Ennis, the husband she’s recently left, will show up for the wedding. The thought that he might bring another woman sickens her.
Besides Gretchen, there are several protagonists for the many dramas and plots woven through the novel. When Caleb, Gretchen’s youngest brother, witnesses his partner, Bobby, passionately embracing Betsy’s muscular gardener, he pays no attention to his father’s advice. The crashes of a brutal brawl and Bobby’s departure before the wedding tell us how it gets resolved.
As for Lincoln, father of the four, he arrives with a piercing toothache having en route bitten down on a hard candy bar. It doesn’t help his pain when Caleb breezily informs him that “some things never change. Angelica was always your favorite. . . . She still is.”
He’d loved them all. But had he really been that transparent? Ms. McDonough relays Lincoln’s reaction: “Guilt snaked through the pain, lacing in and out of it like a braid.”
Through willpower he is no longer the helpless lush he was when married to Betsy. His breath still has a tang — but it is from Coca-Cola. And here in Betsy’s manor house, his status has changed overnight from that of a loser. By dashing into a wild rainstorm in search of the missing 86-year-old Lenore, a feisty pillar of the family, he becomes a hero. He hadn’t really any idea which place to look for Lenore, but through his determination and a bit of luck eventually discovers her, “a crumpled little heap of a person, sopping wet” under the bushes.
And, of course, she attends the wedding. Readers might well remember Lenore after putting the book down. Admired by the entire family, this octogenarian not only can seize and savor a moment herself, but bring out the best in others.
Tensions mount when the precariously balanced Justine attempts a demonic plan to stop the marriage. Her furious resentment toward the drop-dead handsome bridegroom, Ohad, once a pilot in the Israeli air force, has no limits. Her idea was to catch him alone and, while chatting, move in closer to him. Swiftly she would pull down her blouse and press her lips to his. Meanwhile she’d be taking a picture of the embrace with her cellphone. Bingo! Angelica would be ashamed and disgusted, the family would be aghast, and the name of Ohad would be mud.
Justine, however, is shocked by the power of her own whirling desires as she presses against him. “That unfamiliar smell of his: sharp, tangy even. She felt giddy, crazed. Like she was on something. . . . Needing some form of release, she abruptly thrust herself against Ohad’s chest, tilting her face up and pressing his lips with her own.”
His lips — full but taut, and not soft. . . . Her mouth opened . . . her tongue tried to find his. But Ohad did not open his mouth. . . .
“Hey,” Ohad had said, breaking the spell. “Easy now.” He stepped back and grasped her upper arms. . . .
“You okay?” Ohad looked neither angry nor alarmed. . . . He acted as if it were nothing to have a 15-year-old girl grab him . . . no big deal, his look seemed to say.
His final response is a gem of rationality. He has acted like a mensch.
In 24 hours Ms. McDonough’s articulate characters have reached out to one another — for help and understanding. Their alliances have strengthened. Even the highly principled Gretchen can forgive her husband’s one-night trespass. Betsy recognizes Lincoln anew — as a dear old friend. And even saddled with his “mother of all toothaches,” Lincoln’s happiness cannot be measured as he holds his exquisite daughter’s hand on their walk up the aisle toward the huppah.
Glynne Hiller’s articles have been published in The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, and The Washington Post, among others. She lives in Sag Harbor.