What would literature be without dysfunctional families? Troubled, bickering, dissatisfied family units are a staple of fiction and nonfiction alike. Adrienne Miller’s debut novel, The Coast of Akron, showcases yet another unhappy clan: the Havens of Akron. They consist of troubled artists Lowell and Jenny Haven, their unhappy adult daughter, Merit
,and Lowell’s miserable lover, Fergus.
Yet for all its palpable misery and dysfunction, Miller’s book seldom seems forced or even depressing. Instead, Coast is smart, funny and readable. It shifts viewpoints, depending on the chapter, from Fergus to Merit to Jenny. Through their eyes, we see the saga of the Havens. Jenny, an idealistic young painter, takes up with charming, dramatic, sexually ambiguous artist Lowell. They marry, have a child, and then move in with Jenny’s childhood best friend, Fergus.
Of course, Lowell and Jenny share a secret. Of course, the family unit splits apart. Of course, Merit grows up into an adulterous, dissatisfied woman. The book’s narrative jumps between the past and present, telling how these people found, then rejected, each other. Yes, the set-up is familiar, but Miller’s gift is in the details.
For instance, Merit – an animal lover and vegetarian – lies about being a veterinarian to intimidate a pet shop owner into providing better conditions for the animals in his store. Her flustered reaction when the lie is discovered is both funny and painful.
And her humiliation-laced affair with her assistant and how it causes Merit to make a lot of dumb mistakes that someone in her position might actually make,
lets her seem like a real person, not a collection of neuroses, which many characters in dysfunctional-family stories are often reduced to. Fergus is also real, with his insecurities, eccentricities and annoying ticks. It makes sense that the people in his life alternate between loving him and pushing him away.
The problem with Coast is that Miller paints her dysfunctional family into a corner. There’s a lot of build-up to the final sequence involving a party at Lowell and Fergus’s house, but the payoff doesn’t really seem strong enough. Yet that’s a relatively minor quibble. Coast is never less than compelling, and its characters, particularly Fergus and Merit, are a perverse joy to send time with.