I usually don't read fiction by authors who have not yet established major reputations. But I made an exception for Barbara Claypole White’s The Perfect Son, which is only her third novel (the first appeared just two years ago). The main reason for the exception was that a synopsis of the story appealed to me: a middle-aged, stay-at-home mother (Ella Fitzwilliam) has a heart attack with serious complications, leaving her husband (Felix) to take over the main responsibility for caring for their high-school son (Harry) who has Tourette syndrome. The main problem is that Felix has always devoted much more time to his work (in the bond market) than to Harry, and the new situation requires much love and maturing for all three of the main characters to continue developing.
In an interview at the end of the book, White states that she had “long been fascinated by the 80 percent divorce rate among families raising special-needs kids.” She also mentions that her own son “has battled obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD] for most of his life.”
Good literature is often appealing because it deals with universal problems, but does so through believable characters with whom we can empathize. Tolstoy began Anna Kareninawith the famous line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And in the rest of his great novel he dealt with different families and their various difficulties. Although The Perfect Son does not match the sweep or greatness of Anna Karenina, it also treats family life, one of literature’s most universal themes. And it deals with another subject that Tolstoy’s novel—and many of his other writings—also struggle with self-improvement, mainly through his character Levin.
In an interview at the end of the book, White states that she had “long been fascinated by the 80 percent divorce rate among families raising special-needs kids.”
White’s novel, however, has a contemporary American setting, mainly in the Durham, North Carolina area, where the Fitzwilliams live. Like White herself, both Ella and Felix were born and raised in England, and the author occasionally flashes back to their English years, which help explain how they became the people they are.
In the words of his son, Harry, Felix is a “Nazi neat freak” or, as he himself recognizes toward the end of the novel, a person plagued with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). He reads on an OCD website that OCPD is characterized by “rigid adherence to rules and regulations”; “an overwhelming need for order”; “unwillingness to yield or give responsibilities to others”; “a sense of righteousness about the way things ‘should be done’”; and “excessive devotion to work that impairs family activities.” He admits to himself that all these traits have characterized his behavior.
Suffering from OCPD has made it especially difficult for Felix to cope with Harry’s Tourette’s, which is one reason doing so has been left mainly to Ella, who is more psychologically sound than her husband. But her initial heart attack (early in the novel) and all its subsequent complications make it impossible for her to continue offering the ever-present loving assistance she previously has.
Thus, her setback sets the stage for the rest of the novel. How will Felix react to the challenge of now having to be the primary parent looking after the welfare of teenage Harry? How will Harry respond to the new role of Felix, who heretofore has displayed little tolerance and patience for his Tourette-syndrome son? How will Ella cope with the much-diminished role her illness has forced upon her?
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Reading the novel, I thought of all the difficulties other modern American families face. We may be lucky enough not to have many of the problems that people in less fortunate countries have—war, severe food shortages, astronomical unemployment, etc.—but we still have many of our own: senseless shootings and unsafe streets, mass incarceration, racial and other forms of prejudice, dysfunctional politics, serious environmental deterioration, and the myriad of other problems facing ordinary people. Parents face the difficulty of bringing up children with proper values in a consumer culture which constantly bombards kids telling them they need new products. Numerous workers spend 40 or more hours a week at unsatisfying and/or low paying jobs. And then there are the homeless, the lonely, and the sick, often cared for by exhausted family caregivers.
The quote sometimes attributed to Philo of Alexandria—“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”—may not be true of everyone, but certainly many are fighting such battles. And in facing such difficulties, we may become more irritable, resentful, and complaining or we may grow more loving. The three main characters in The Perfect Son, the Fitzwilliams, adapt and become more loving. Perhaps because at the beginning of the novel Ella is already the most caring, Felix and Harry develop the most. As Felix struggled to overcome his controlling, insecure personality, I thought of the words of St. Paul in Romans 7:19: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” Becoming a better person is not easy. Old habits are hard to break.
Although most husbands and fathers do not have to battle OCD or OCPD, many of them do share Felix’s faults of being too rigid, too work oriented, and too controlling. Like Felix, to develop as good husbands and fathers they need to become less rigid and more loving.
Besides the growth in family love that the Fitzwilliams increasingly demonstrate for each other, White depicts other kinds of love involving secondary characters. Harry and his friend Max share a close friendship bond; Harry becomes smitten with his first girlfriend, Sammie; Ella has two good friends, Katherine and Eudora, who Felix also comes to appreciate as he gradually becomes a more caring person. White also flashes back and gives us glimpses into the earlier marital love, imperfect though it is, of Felix and Ella.
There are other aspects of the novel that could be discussed, both positive and negative. The plot moves briskly, and most readers will want to keep turning pages to see how the main characters keep developing. Some of the nature descriptions are well done, heightening our appreciation of the beauty of the Durham area. The minor faults I found in The Perfect Son I attribute mainly to White still developing as a writer—like her fictional Fitzwilliams, she will probably get better in time.
What remains most important, however, is that her present novel incarnates some of the more abstract wording of that great lover of the poor Dorothy Day, who in a 1938 autobiographical work wrote, “Human love at its best, unselfish, glowing, illuminating our days . . . . Love is the best thing we can know in this life, but it must be sustained by an effort of the will. It is not just an emotion, a warm feeling of gratification. It must lie still and quiet, dull and smoldering, for periods. It grows through suffering and patience and compassion. We must suffer for those we love, we must endure their trials and their sufferings” (see here for source of quote). Any novel that depicts realistic characters trying to realize such love is worthwhile, and The Perfect Son is such a novel.
Walter G. Moss