Living Room is a disarmingly direct portrait of a family in trouble. With the tone of a modern-day Jewish Ice Storm set in Long Island, imbued with Alice Munro’s fascination with personal history, this is a deep exploration of the ripple effects of mental illness and a wry, wise take on suburban angst.
The novel’s perspective carousels between three generations of women. Abby, a wise teenager, strives to keep her parents’ dysfunction at arm’s length while navigating the unfamiliar terrors of high school. Her mother, Livia, a housewife with unfulfilled career aspirations and an eating disorder, is consumed by a daily struggle to keep herself together while helplessly watching her family fall apart. And then there is Headie, the grandmother, whose oncoming senility brings vivd dreams and hallucinations of her younger life and whose main link to reality is a new computer with which she writes cryptic missives to her family.
With her highly praised debut story collection, The First Hurt, Rachel Sherman became known for her laser-sharp view of adolescence; here she takes it two generations further, bringing together a fascinating array of experiences with unusual frankness, humor, and wisdom.
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-Cameron Martin, New York Times Book Review
As she demonstrated in “The First Hurt,” a memorable — and truly disturbing — collection of stories, Sherman is a writer attuned to grotesqueries of daily life. Her fictions play out as if under a magnifying glass, with each character’s flaws — both physical and psychological — expanded a thousandfold, in a manner that recalls Mary Gaitskill and A.M. Homes.
– L.A. Times
The opening lines of my autobiography will include the phrase, “Endless shame and eternal guilt.” But then it wouldn’t just about me, it would be about every modern Jewish woman living in America. Rachel Sherman’s new novel, Living Room, is just that: a book about every jealous, self-conscious, guilt-ridden Jewish broad and her mother and grandmother.
Written from the perspectives of three generations of Jewish women, the narrative shifts from Abby, a rebellious teen who is still growing into herself (and ever thankful for the benefits of facial waxing), to her mother, Livia, a former bombshell-come-housewife-come-aspiring interior decorator who can’t help but watch her vanity destroy herself and her family. Finally there’s Headie, the grandmother/mother-in-law with a juicy secret. Headie’s just discovered the Internet, and for some reason, prefers the view from her kitchen floor.
From the same stock as writers like Lorrie Moore and Amy Hempel, Sherman’s characters thrive under her incredibly particular, telescopic descriptions of the fucked-up human condition. Strange little moments sparkle with humor (Headie’s all-caps email to her granddaughter, pleading in, so few words, to be spared the decoy duck she is making in tech class), and others are so humane, they break your heart. But proceed with caution, Jewish sisters, for reading Living Room is like watching your past and future flash before your depressed little eyes!
-Molly Auerbach, The Faster Times
(4 out of 5 stars) Multigenerational female-centric novels often involve bonding over ethnically specific formulas, or the shedding of copious, cleansing tears when a long-buried family secret comes to light. Not so Rachel Sherman’s Living Room. Mining territory she explored in her 2006 debut, a short-story collection calledThe First Hurt, Sherman turns her unflinching, unsentimental eye once again on deepest suburbia, where personal history festers rather than heals. Here we meet teenage Anna, tackling adolescent humiliations under the tutelage of a new bad-girl best friend. Anna’s mother, Livia, narcissistic and profoundly depressed, fantasizes about being a successful interior designer and develops an unhealthy attachment to the first client she manages to land. And twice-widowed Headie, Livia’s mother-in-law and Anna’s grandmother, crawls about her empty home (it’s easier than standing up) and mulls over the expanse of life behind her in occasionally graphic sexual detail.
The entertaining plot hums along, its heavier moments tempered with plenty of dark humor and incisive language; but it’s the intimate character sketches that truly resonate. Point of view rotates among the three women, who share a fascination with the treacheries of the body. Anna, excited and a bit overwhelmed by her awakening sexuality, contemplates the acne on her au pair’s face and the unwelcome hair on her own. Livia rues the inevitable softening as she slouches toward middle age, stuffing her face with junk food to fill the void she feels inside. Even Headie, barely clinging to the land of the living, wishes that she’d taken care of her feet, which she imagines were once her most perfect part. These inner monologues would be mortifying if bared in real life, but in Sherman’s skilled hands, they render the characters sympathetic, if still disturbing.
—Carolyn Juris, Time Out New York
Sherman’s riveting debut novel (after the collection The First Hurt) examines the dreams and disappointments of teenager Abby; her mother, Livia; and Abby’s grandmother, twice-widowed Headie. Each of the women harbors a secret none of the others suspect: Abby drowns her crippling insecurity in alcohol; Livia has an eating disorder; and Headie’s encroaching senility obscures a secret about her son, Jeffrey. Each, caught up in her own secret, neglects to notice the damage her preoccupation causes others. Vividly drawn secondary characters expand the story’s breadth—Abby’s bad-news friend Jenna; Jorgen, a Swedish au pair whose bad judgment nearly kills Abby; Simone, a lesbian psychiatrist Livia is attracted to for reasons she isn’t quite sure of; and Jeffrey, who acts as a narrative linchpin. Unsentimental yet deeply felt, this tale examines what bubbles under the surface of a supposedly happy Long Island family. (Oct.)
“A compelling and unsentimental novel about the loneliness that exists just below the surface of a family. Sherman skillfully and movingly renders the inner lives of three generations of women as they try—or don’t try—to reconcile the distance between their desires and their actual lives.”
—Dana Spiotta, author of Eat the Document
“Here we have the fractured lives of three generations of women told with zero sentimentality and a huge amount of heart. Living Room is edgy, moving, smart, funny, and altogether human. Rachel Sherman is the real deal.”
—Dani Shapiro, author of Black & White
“Rachel Sherman’s Long Island is a desolate place: lawns, indoor carpeting, a wet couch some high school kids dragged into the woods to smoke pot on. The au pair has acne and grandma can’t seem to turn off the caps lock key. Sherman, incredibly, is in no hurry to leave this place. She tells it all. The result is a funny, scary, dirty, and, in the end, a very moving, generous book.”
—Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men
“Living Room is that rare book that actually concerns itself with how we live now. Rachel Sherman’s lost Long Island women throb with life and she has the courage to look at these lives honestly, without pity but not without love.”
—Joshua Furst, author of The Sabotage Café