The Altru­ists

  • Review
By – June 24, 2019

The dys­func­tion­al fam­i­ly has always held a beloved place in lit­er­a­ture. Its roots trav­el as far back as Shake­speare, tear up the pages of Tol­stoy, and enthrall us in Jane Eyre. Stunt­ed fam­i­lies are what encap­su­late much of Philip Roth’s work and are sure­ly the foun­da­tion of J.D. Salinger’s Glass fam­i­ly; they are the make-up of Jes­myn Ward’s Jojo in Sing, Unburied Sing and Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao. These voic­es speak to their unique famil­ial expe­ri­ence and remind us of our­selves. Andrew Ridker’s debut nov­el is engross­ing and engag­ing — there’s also tons of inef­fec­tive empa­thy to go around.

The Altru­ists holds many of those fun ingre­di­ents that Jonathan Franzen offered up in The Cor­rec­tions, writ­ten almost twen­ty years ago now: black com­e­dy, aging par­ents in mid­dle Amer­i­ca and dis­con­nect­ed sib­lings with their own foibles, liv­ing bleary-eyed in dis­parate envi­ron­ments. Yet unlike Franzen, The Altru­ists begins at the end of a tragedy. From the very first page we learn that the matri­arch, Francine Alter, has been dead for two years. A mar­riage coun­selor and wife to Arthur Alter, moth­er to Ethan and Mag­gie, Francine died in St. Louis, where the fam­i­ly relo­cat­ed when her hus­band took a teach­ing posi­tion at Dan­forth Col­lege. There is also the mat­ter of Francine’s mon­ey, which was invest­ed wise­ly and set aside exclu­sive­ly for her chil­dren. The mes­sage of mon­ey seems sim­ply that each mem­ber of the fam­i­ly seeks to be altru­is­tic, for rea­sons they can’t entire­ly explain, but in the process of giv­ing self­less­ly they end up hurt­ing either them­selves or others.

As for the chil­dren, young Mag­gie lives in Queens, babysit­ting in the hopes of bet­ter­ing her­self in the process. She strug­gles with her own eat­ing dis­or­der and at one point thinks of her priv­i­lege and deter­mines that, it was the duty of those for whom life was easy to impose dif­fi­cul­ty on them­selves before they rot­ted from the inside out.” Alter­na­tive­ly, her elder broth­er, Ethan, has clois­tered him­self in a high-end Brook­lyn neigh­bor­hood where he runs up cred­it card debt pur­chas­ing house­wares at var­i­ous home goods stores.

A large chunk of Ridker’s nov­el spans Arthur’s life as a young, ambi­tious, and benev­o­lent man, hatch­ing the idea to cre­ate stur­dy, san­i­tary, low-cost out­hous­es across the Zim­bab­wean coun­try­side.” In the sec­ond half we glimpse Francine, grow­ing up in Ohio where her moth­er assem­bles the fam­i­ly in the kitchen on Shab­bat, light­ing the can­dles and pray­ing in Hebrew; specif­i­cal­ly, how Francine looked for­ward to the High Holy Days when her moth­er act­ed with the utmost kind­ness.” Rid­ker indi­cates that this was the moment in Francine’s ado­les­cence when she, like the young Arthur, and lat­er her daugh­ter, become pre­oc­cu­pied with fair­ness” ques­tion­ing why one fam­i­ly has more than another.

The result of Andrew Ridker’s fam­i­ly cross-sec­tion is tru­ly splen­did. It is a fun and enter­tain­ing explo­ration of love and kind­ness, and how gen­eros­i­ty, even pre­sent­ed in its finest hour, is not spared its own, very unique and untidy flaws.

Wendy Ruth Walk­er is cur­rent­ly enrolled in the M.A. Writ­ing Pro­gram at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty as well as the Ben­ning­ton MFA Writ­ing Sem­i­nars. She was a for­mer edi­tor at Simon & Schus­ter in New York as well as a con­tribut­ing writer to Stop Smil­ing Mag­a­zine. She cur­rent­ly acts as an edi­to­r­i­al consultant.

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