Eleven-year-old Gael is in primary school, her brother, Guthrie is two years behind her. Their father, Jarleth, is married to Sive, principal conductor of Ireland's National Symphony. A few weeks earlier, Gael's parents sat her down to explain the situation: Guthrie is physically healthy, but he has something called "somatic delusional disorder." Gael's inward dialogue rings too true. Jarleth confides to his daughter he and Sive are both committing the sin of being sexually active outside of wedlock. Sive has been feeling removed, always trying to get things out of the way so she can get back to work, tending to orchestral matters while comparing arrangements.
Gael is about to exercise the judgment of the world, but will she survive and thrive? Or will she turn her back and thereby take Sive and Guthrie's happiness away? As Hughes walks us through the dramas of her protagonist's life, she asks: Do we aspire to have worth and influence while risking tragedy, or do we aspire toward love and togetherness and risk that it won't have been enough? Thus unfolds a difficult tale about love and togetherness, all wrapped up in the difficult choices that Gael must make as her dark house wobbles and she finds herself reading the Wiki entry on cheating.
Hughes is a beautiful wordsmith and writes with a postured connection to James Joyce's writing style; however, I found little to enjoy in Orchid and the Wasp. Gael moves to England for college (where she befriends Harper, who manages her behavioral issues by burying her head in books), always making sure her "complex timbre" will be listened to and danced for, yet never quite understanding the metaphorical symbolism of her life. She engenders little sympathy even as she readies herself to remake her life in New York. Sometimes there is really no way to ascertain Gael's state of mind, though she clearly loves Guthrie who doesn't believe in the armor of body language "or the refuge of teenage skepticism."
Gael's story is complete with her perceptions and judgments as well as her motives which change like quicksilver, sometimes within the same sentence. The narrative is like overhearing one side of a conversation in a coffee shop, or a cellphone conversation of a woman whose time would be better spent on a therapist's couch. Earthy and driven, Gael loves her mother and brother, but as she sets about reconfiguring her future, she shows that she has few scruples and is basically motivated by all the trappings that money can buy.
Ireland's historical details merge as, decade by decade, we are firmly embedded in Gael's life from the boom time of the 1990s through the 2003 Iraq War and on to the financial crash of 2008. Dependable, practical mother Sive receives less attention, as does damaged Guthrie, who at a young age becomes the father of twins. Though Gael's loyalty to her family is never in question, Hughes makes it hard for us to understand the rest of her protagonist's machinations and rationalizations. Hughes portrays Gael as a modern, intelligent woman who must overstep the process of evaluation and take her self-worth as a given, but she does this with varying degrees of success.
The book focuses on loneliness and how much our past defines us. Perhaps for Gael there is no real salvation, no ability to untether herself from the past. Good-Gael's life, in the beginning at least, is mostly well told. Still, I find it difficult to imagine that most readers will be interested in her. At first, I enjoyed Gael's travails, but I rapidly became bored by her and was unable to finish the book.