Sibling-Friction Fiction: A Case for Large Families

As Newsweek recently reminded us, sibling dynamics are as important (psychologically, developmentally, etc.) as anything that goes on between a parent and child. The internecine struggle between brothers and sisters—who does best in school, who calls shotgun in the car, who gets the first waffle out of the waffle iron—it’s Darwinism at the breakfast table, day in and day out. Until, that is, you become adults and allegiances shift, and suddenly you’re united in the common goal of How to Deal with Mom and Dad’s divorce, their finances, their illnesses.

Some of my favorite books of the last five years have been family dramas told primarily through siblings: Maile Meloy’s Liars and Saints and its companion, A Family Daughter; Meg Wolitzer’s The Position; and, of course, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Not just two siblings, mind you; at least three or more seems optimal, both for storytelling and character development. After all, children who grow up in large families define themselves in relation to their siblings. Which leads me to wonder: Now that couples are having fewer children, will there be fewer novels about sibling friction?

Eliza Minot, herself the youngest of seven (among them Susan Minot, author of Monkeys), makes a great case for the emotional richness of large families in her second novel, The Brambles. The eldest Bramble, Margaret, is the moral compass of the family, the responsible and slightly overbearing sister who’s always asking incriminatingly, Did you call Dad? Her only vice, it seems, aside from thinking of everyone else’s needs before her own, is that she has an “eBay problem” that her husband Brian tolerates with amusement. Margaret and Brian are old-school breeders, New York City refugees with three kids under the age of 7 and a Honda Odyssey who have settled in a leafy suburb in New Jersey. “The days with small children, she has come to accept, blend. ‘Face it,’ Brian said to her when she complained years ago that she wasn’t getting any work done, ‘you’ve been thrown into neutral.’”

Next in Bramble birth order is Max, the handsome, slightly wayward middle child who is living on the upper-middle-class equivalent of “the down low”—he’s not gay, he’s just unemployed, a fact that he’s been hiding from his wife, Chloe. Max and Chloe have a kid too, but they have yet to figure out their escape from Manhattan, so little Rex’s crib takes up the entryway to their studio apartment in Chelsea. And then there’s Edie, the youngest sibling, in her late 20’s and supremely sarcastic, yet struggling mightily—with her weight, with men and with her own dark moods.

Ms. Minot handles the considerable angst of her characters with a deft, humorous touch. In a particularly fine section from The Brambles, Edie is on a solo road trip in California, eating bags of candy from rest stops and chain-smoking, when she gets overtaken by despair just as an Eminem song comes on. “She turns the radio up, crying still, and distractedly through tears sings along, shouting, ‘Can I get a witness?’ through her melting, crying face.” Just a sentence or two later, comic relief: “The huge Hearst mansion. Saint Elmo? San Remo? She can’t remember.”

Tragedy has struck the Bramble family: The mother recently died in a plane crash, one of those puddle-jumper flights from Maine to Boston. Now their father is stricken with cancer and moves in with Margaret for his final days. As oldest siblings often do, Margaret hogs the air space; much of the book is told through her frazzled, mother-of-three eyes. Thankfully, she stops fretting long enough to take in the charming interaction between her children and their dying Gramps. (Ms. Minot reserves some of her most beautiful and spare writing for the very young and the very old.) Max is wound up in his own marital problems, but Edie, the youngest, catches wind of a Bramble family secret that she manages to unearth and bring back to share with her sister and brother, a secret that was about to die with the Bramble patriarch.

And isn’t that, really, what siblings are good for—helping to process those scary, twisted moments of family drama that inevitably crop up even before your parents die? Dad’s had a mistress, or Mom gave away a baby for adoption before you were born, and all of a sudden there’s a perfect stranger wandering around out there who’s related to you, for God’s sake. Siblings help turn such revelations into inside jokes and help you take the news in stride, thereby reducing your therapy bills considerably.

The Brambles ends with Margaret, Max and Edie looking on as their father’s coffin is lifted into a crematorium that, they can’t help but notice, looks remarkably like the ovens at the neighborhood pizzeria they frequented when they were kids. “The three of them look straight ahead, watching the digital temperature on the furnace rise. With their mother, they didn’t stay to see this happen. Margaret takes Edie’s hand. ‘Jesus,’ says Margaret softly, squeezing it. On her other side, Edie takes Max’s hand and squeezes it, passing it on.” There is strength, ultimately, in numbers.

Ruth Davis Konigsberg, former deputy editor for features at Glamour, is at work on her first book.