The Ghost at the Table
Suzanne Berne
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Buy *The Ghost at the Table* by Suzanne Berne online

The Ghost at the Table
Suzanne Berne
Algonquin Books
304 pages
September 2006
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars
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When the Fiske family of Concord, Massachusetts, come together to celebrate Thanksgiving, it proves that you can always be persuaded to doubt your own certainties but never your own lies. Amidst the pumpkins pies and the frozen turkey, two sisters, whether they like it or not, are forced to confront some stark misinterpretations of their family history.

Cynthia Fiske is a thirty something author living in San Francisco who specializes in writing cheerfully earnest feminist stories for a series of novels called "Sisters of History," accounts of famous women "as told" by one of their sisters, focusing on childhood and emphasizing the strong bond that exists between sisters.

Over the years, Cynthia's own bond with her older sister Francis has been strong but also somewhat troubled, often weighed down by obstacles beyond their power and controlled by some hard truths about their childhood, which are always threatening to resurface.

As the novel opens, Francis has called Cynthia with an invitation to come home for Thanksgiving. Cynthia, however, is a bit hesitant, to say the least. She has been trying to come to terms with her troubled upbringing where she had to deal with a chronically ill mother and a father who seemed distant and obviously favored her big sister over her.

Meanwhile, Frances is currently getting ready to place their father in a nursing home. An octogenarian, he has been left partly aphasic and paralyzed on his right side by a stroke, and now he is confined to a wheelchair. The family hasnít been together for a while, and Cynthia doesn't quite know how she feels about the prospect of confronting her father; there's still a side of her that holds him responsible for her mother's death.

When Cynthia arrives, she also finds that Isle, their father's second and much younger wife, just doesn't want to deal with her old husband's wrath at being stuck in a nursing home. When the sisters take him on, determined to drive him to the home, they discover there's actually no room available. Frances decides to let the reviled man stay through Thanksgiving, intent to sweep all of his wrongdoings under the carpet.

The guests arrive, the party sits down to dinner, and Francis starts to ply Cynthia with tales about their childhood, which in turn unleashes the inevitable feelings of melancholy and suspicion. There's certainly jealousy; Francis obviously envies Cynthia's freewheeling life, and Cynthia desires the settled commotion of her sister's life even more.

Full of agitated emotion and featuring a wry sardonic look at life, The Ghost at the Table is a delightful contemporary comedy of manners, drawing on the lives of famous literary characters and featuring protagonists who are more often than not guilty of failures of communication and of creating snap and impulsive opinions.

These certainly arenít wicked people, only a little phlegmatic and self-absorbed. Cynthia and Francis want a good story with a reasonable ending, both in fact and fiction, and are somewhat resigned to the fact that they will never know exactly what happened to their mother; knowing probably wouldn't change anything anyway.

As the holiday celebration continues and the events take a turn toward the somber, they come to realize that perhaps the shadowy and somewhat vague memories of their father's past are probably best laid to rest.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2006

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