There is a time in early adulthood when all you want to do is leave the familiar, boring, sheltered life of your parents and launch out into the world to make your own way. There is also a time, maybe when you realize that your childish dreams are just that, when you long to return to the familiar comforts of home. Jennifer Close, bestselling author of GIRLS IN WHITE DRESSES, THE SMART ONE, AND THE HOPEFULS, is a master at bringing her characters home, and does so with aplomb in her latest novel, MARRYING THE KETCHUPS.
Bud and Rose Sullivan founded the family restaurant, JP Sullivans (the most famous restaurant in Oak Park) in 1979, and in 2016, on the cusp of a great upheaval in American politics and in the midst of another angst-ridden go at the World Series by their beloved Chicago Cubs, Sullivan’s could still be depended upon to serve up comfort – sometimes in the form of meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
In the span of two weeks, three astounding things happened: Bud died, the Cubs won the World Series, and Trump won the election.
“The world was a strange and heartbreaking place, and it wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.”
Bud’s grandchildren, Gretchen, Jane, and Teddy were all in their thirties and settled into their adult lives. Teddy was the manager of The Cuckoo’s Nest Restaurant across town, a trendy bar/restaurant in the West Loop. Gretchen lived in New York and was the lead singer in a 90’s cover band, and her sister, Jane was living in Lake Forest with her husband and two small children. But just as the world tipped askew, so did the lives of Gretchen, Jane, and Teddy.
In the wake of Bud’s death, Teddy returned to manage Sullivan’s. He’d recently suffered through a breakup with his boyfriend, who was now engaged to another man.
When Gretchen discovered her boyfriend was having an affair with another bandmate, she used their breakup as an excuse to jump ship. The band was her dream, but they’d traded fame for fortune by becoming a wedding band. The worst part was the band was getting older, but their audience was getting younger. She needed to regroup, so she returned to Chicago and moved into the family apartment over the restaurant.
Her sister, Jane was outgrowing her suburban life in Lake Forest, where she found herself increasingly at odds with her conservative neighbors. When her husband, who had recently become obsessed with fitness and his phone, suggested they separate, Jane decided to move back to Oak Park, too.
The Sullivans were a close family, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into happily ever after. The apartment belonged to all the Sullivan’s equally. Bud and Rose intended it to be a landing pad for anyone who needed it – “a halfway house for messy lives.” Gretchen knew she had no right to be annoyed when Jane and her kids moved in with her, but she was.
Close’s characters are conflicted and complicated. That year, their lives were broken and their dreams dashed. Everything they knew to be true, suddenly wasn’t.
Teddy felt unappreciated – his family’s opinions about the restaurant were so big that sometimes he forgot that he had his own opinions. Gretchen felt like a failure – the boomerang child who returned to the family nest, dreams crushed, and as broke as when she left. Jane felt invisible, she’d been making herself small her entire adult life to accommodate everyone else’s overwhelming needs.
“Growing old isn’t the same as growing up,” Gretchen admitted. But having a safe place to land while you’re figuring out what your next gig is going to be, is pretty sweet, and recognizing the privilege that comes with that makes you grateful, and understanding that everything is always in a state of flux is comforting in its own way – especially when you’re in the downward rotation. For now, they were all safely tucked into the Sullivan armpit, but soon, they would embark on their next adventure.
As Close writes, it wasn’t the best year the Sullivan’s had ever had . . . but maybe it wouldn’t be their worst. Close writes about families with great humor and grace. Anyone who has worked in restaurants will relate to the “family meal” at the beginning of each shift, the messy process of combining half-empty bottles of ketchup to make something new and palatable for the next day’s customers, and the relationships that coalesce and dissolve in the frantic pace of restaurant culture.
I recommend MARRYING THE KETCHUPS for fans of character driven fiction, coming-of-age stories, and family dramas. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.