I was looking forward to reading Joan London’s most recent novel, The good parents, because I loved her Gilgamesh, not only for its engrossing story but also for its evocation of place and period and its spare writing. The plot of The good parents is a simple one. Maya, Jacob and Toni’s 18 year-old daughter, disappears just before they arrive in Melbourne to visit her, and the book chronicles the way they go about locating her and bringing her home. It is not, however, a mystery or detective novel but an exploration of “family” and particularly of parents and parenting.
London looks at these subjects through her various characters and their stories: Jacob and his mother Arlene, Toni and her parents Beryl and Nig, Cecile and her adoptive parents, Cy and his mother, and so on. And from these she uses parallels in their stories to tease out similarities and differences. For example, both Toni and Maya run away, Jacob and Cy are both products, essentially, of single mother families. It is, in fact, a cleverly constructed book, with links and refrains criss-crossing the narrative.
The book also seems to be about the life you choose for yourself and about how to find meaning in that life: Jacob has “the fear of dying without ever having been able to give expression to what it meant to live”; Toni is concerned that she and Jacob “opted for the small life”. I’m not sure that London quite marries these two themes together – and perhaps she doesn’t need to. I did find it hard to get a grip on Maya’s story – it’s an age-old story and yet it felt a little forced. But, Jacob’s and Toni’s stories are well told and she sensitively portrays a wide range of parents and parenting and the accommodations people do and do not make in their lives regarding their families. The book is called The good parents. By the end, I wasn’t quite sure whether we are supposed to read this somewhat ironically (as in “you call that good?”), or straight, implying that parents in general do their best, even if the end result may not be exactly what they might have wanted. I suspect it’s a bit of both, showing London’s capacity to be wry and compassionate together.
It’s a very open book, with no neat conclusion and no apparent authorial judgment. Cy is not brought to book for his behaviour, nor is Maynard for his. Carlos and Chris will survive their respective affairs. And so on. I like books that are generous or forgiving of their characters. This is not to say that I don’t like gritty, hard-hitting books too, but I do like generosity sometimes and this book is generous. She allows us to look at her characters, warts and all, and to draw our own conclusions. I guess, in the end, it is a bit of a “slice of life” novel … but a tightly controlled one for all that.