The Ghost at the Table, by Suzanne Berne, is a beautiful novel about families, stories, and people. I read it based on a review, but when I realized that it was in one sense about a dysfunctional family, I wondered whether I would actually enjoy it. I don’t typically choose to read the average novel about contemporary American families and all their problems. The Ghost at the Table is anything but average, however, and I was moved by Berne’s insightful examination of families.
The story centers around two sisters and their father who are all three together at Thanksgiving for the first time in many years. The sister, Frances, who is hosting the dinner wants all three of them to be happy together, forgiving each other and forgetting the past – specifically the circumstances surrounding their mother’s death – before the father passes away. The other sister, Cynthia, who is the narrator, does not feel the need for such reconciliation and is resistant to the way she feels Frances has forced it upon her.
One of the primary themes in The Ghost at the Table is the way in which we tell stories about our past. Each sister and the father has a different version of what happened when their mother died, colored by their general attitude towards life. When there are things that we do not fully understand, or when someone does something that we cannot relate to, we tell a story about it to turn it into something we can understand, perhaps even assigning motivations to people that may not be their true motivations. We convince ourselves that our version is the truth, but in reality there is no one truth because each person experiences things differently.
Berne’s writing evokes a sense of the commonality of our actions – she describes the small details of situations and people, the parts that you can relate even if you have never had the exact same experience. For example, during the Thanksgiving dinner scene the Cynthia observes the dinner table:
Walter was telling Kamal about a new MRI the hospital was leasing, the most recent model from GE. “I hear it’s a marvel.” The gingered carrots were still going around the table, followed by the brussels sprouts like little green planets in their blue dish. Twice Wen-Yi pressed against my arm as he reached for the bowls and dishes that were passed to him. Conversations reeled around me, orbiting spearate topics; faces leaned in and out of the candlelight. Now it was no longer babies and MRIs being discussed but embryonic stem cell research, the outrageous cost of housing in Boston, and the television show Fear Factor on which minor celebrities allowed themselves to be covered with scorpions or dropped into snake pits… Such marvels, I thought, lifting my wineglass. Such wonders… Doing our best to enjoy ourselves, to blend in, to be a part of this gathering, to pass dishes and choose between butter or margarine.
Throughout most of the book, you naturally feel sympathetic towards Cynthia, as she is the narrator. However, Berne manages to make you question this towards the end, in part through the simple device of having another character ask Cynthia a question – one that makes you suddenly stop and think about the way you have been interpreting things. You can only hope that Cynthia also is given pause by the question; you never truly find out as she does not answer, and it ends the chapter. I found that this gave the book much more complexity than it would have had otherwise.
The ending to the book was beautiful and gave closure. I read some reviews that criticized the ending, saying that nothing was resolved. It is true that the “true” story of what happened in the past is never revealed, but there was no way that it could be, as one of the main themes is stories about the past. Some other things are resolved, in a sense, and I at least felt a sense of closure.
I highly recommend The Ghost at the Table.