So why am I lying in bed with at midnight with the lights out and tears streaming down my face, when I’m normally sound asleep at 10 p.m.? Because I couldn’t disentangle myself from Lily King’s Father of the Rain. Because I didn’t really try. Because it had me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. Made me think about things I hadn’t thought about for a while and — sigh — feel stuff, too. Oy.
Here’s the gist of it: the father of the title is Gardiner Amory, a charismatic, handsome, wounded drunken WASP. (Of course I know no one like this.) His daughter Daley is the narrator. The title refers to the epigraph from the Book of Job: “Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?” And the real genius of the book is the tone of the entire first section, in which Daley is a child, and her charismatic, handsome, impossible father acts out in ways that baffle, wound, astound and alarm her. What’s so smart is the way King manages to make him loom so very large. Children, of course, are relatively powerless and King also does a great job of conveying the coping skills that Daley learns: a kind of blank evasiveness coupled with hyper-awareness of the surrounding emotional weather: “I sense all the new rules, though I could never explain how.”
The book has a threefold structure and I have to admit it was a little bit predictable, a dialectical arrangement that follows the childhood section (thesis) with a section (antithesis) in which Daley as a young adult is battened-down, controlling, risk-averse, and estranged from her father. Fortunately there is a section of synthesis, ruefully redemptive. I don’t even know if this part is convincing: I just really wanted it to be true.
The other feature of the book that brought it home so forcefully was the setting. The Amorys live in Ashing, Massachusetts, one of those WASP enclaves that I figure is on the North Shore. King handles this very adroitly: the child Daley takes for granted the enormous house, the country club, the pool, the private school, the social round floating on copious quantities of liquor. Equally admirable is the ejection from Eden, when Daley’s mother leaves her father and moves to an apartment in town. Oh, lord, the dislocation, the awkwardness, the horror as Daley’s father takes up with another woman and a kind of licentious sexual behavior overtakes concern for the kids! Naturally once Daley is on her own she rejects this way of life, and there’s a nice moment when her father drags her back to the country club over her self-righteous objections to its exclusive policies. Togged out in a new tennis skirt that her father just bought her, she finds that, yes, tennis can actually be fun.
I’d like to assert that Father of the Rain is more than just a powerful ACOA novel, but I can’t be sure that’s true. All I know is that it dug a hole in my heart.