Lisa Tucker,
Once Upon a Day
(Atria, 2006)

Wow! Lisa Tucker has written a story of a family history and interpersonal drama that will consume the reader from the first chapter. I usually juggle a few books at once, but this one made me drop all others, and stay up late at night, devouring the story.

No plot summary can do this novel justice. Essentially, we have a family living in seclusion on a New Mexico estate. Dad Charles has raised his two children, now in their early 20s, with no contact with the outside world, in 1950s-style clothing, and they worship him and fear the outside world. All is well until the older brother, Jimmy, escapes on a quest to find their supposedly dead mother, and his sister Dorothea follows him out into the world. I'm sure you've figured out the early-on twist by now -- Mom isn't dead, and Dad kidnapped his kids two decades ago.

The story involves both the present time and flashbacks of the dissolution of marriage between Charles and Lucy, leading to his fanatic escape into desert seclusion with their two children. Charles, a famous actor and director, is an unbalanced and controlling man who smothers his family with love and protection. He actively ruins his young wife's acting career out of his fear and paranoia, which he sees as "love." One can only assume that Tucker started working on this novel well before the current famous Hollywood couple that pairs an older man (with infamous religious values) with a younger actress who seems to be cut off from family and friends, but the parallels are eerie. In fact, when I was absorbed in this story, I had to keep reminding myself that this isn't a true Hollywood story. It's larger than life, sure, but not hard to imagine as a factual memoir.

Tucker's novel has a real strength it its subtle exploration of family dysfunction. Again and again, we see the consequences of the effects of dysfunction, from Charles' own childhood relationship with his father, to Lucy's need for a father-figure-of-a-husband after her tumultuous childhood and early sexuality, to the effects of Charles' smothering on his own children. Even the way that Lucy and Jimmy learn the truth about their parents' relationship is extremely troubling to everyone involved.

Tucker never overtly mentions therapy, but I certainly kept thinking, "Boy, he/she could use a good therapist at this point in their life."

Highly recommended! Clear your schedule before you pick this one up! Now I need to go read Tucker's first two novels....

by Jessica Lux-Baumann
19 August 2006

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