There is something very romantic about the era spanning from World War II through the 1960s. It’s a time remembered as hopeful. People believed anyone could achieve the American dream. It is also a time when people pretended life was perfect, even though there were a lot of nasty things beneath the surface.
It is at the beginning of this time that Liza Klaussman, author of Tigers in Red Winter, introduces us to Nick Derringer and Helena Lewis, two cousins so close their relationship could be described more like sisters. Although they grew up together as next-door neighbors, Nick had wealthy parents, while Helena’s were poor. The power dynamic between the two was established before they were even born when Nick’s father built a house for Helena’s mother next to their family estate in Martha’s Vineyard. The division between those two worlds separates the cousins throughout the 25-year span of the novel — though in the beginning the reader believes, like Nick and Helena convince themselves to, that their different status in society doesn’t matter.
The story, which we are told from five points of view, begins in 1945 when Nick and Helena are both on the brink of marriage — Nick to the handsome Hughes who’s just returned from the war, and Helena to Avery Lewis, a sleazy insurance man from Los Angeles. Nick and Hughes move to Florida, while Helena follows Avery to Hollywood. Both women soon find themselves bored and frustrated with their lives and husbands, discovering love isn’t enough to make life perfect.
Nick convinces Hughes to return to Massachusetts, where they can summer at the estate, Tiger House, and Helena can visit. We don’t meet the two again until 1959. Each has a child approaching adolescence, Daisy and Ed. As Daisy takes over the storytelling we learn of a murder that will factor in throughout the novel, sometimes outright and at other times as a question lingering in the background. Daisy and Ed are the ones who discover the body, but the aftermath changes the entire family.
If you’re looking for a simple murder mystery, you may as well give up now because that’s not what you’re going to get. The intertwining plots provide much more than a who-dun-it; they explore the complex relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and, of course, cousins. We soon realize the story cannot be told without each character’s viewpoint, and they’re all complicated souls. Nick and Helena rival each other in their unhappiness—the self-possessed, unconventionally beautiful Nick, silently suffers under the guise of a perfect life, while the blonde pill-popping Helena clings desperately to a pathetic marriage, while also ignoring her son’s sociopathic tendencies. Nick’s daughter Daisy seeks maternal approval, even as she pretends she doesn’t see that Tyler, the young man who will eventually become her fiancé, is and will remain desperately in love with her mother. Helena’s son Ed is the definition of creepy as he slips around spying on people, claiming it is all “research.” (What type of research is never quite defined, as if Ed expects everyone to see his explanation for his peeping-Tom tendencies as logically as he does.) Finally there’s Hughes, Nick’s drop-dead gorgeous and extremely successful husband, who, although he loves his wife, has never gotten over a woman he had an affair with in London during the war.
Echoes of The Great Gatsby are obvious — everything from the unhappy marriage to the fabulous summer parties to the unattainability of a position in wealthy society. I cannot say whether this was a conscious decision by Klaussman, but it’s important to realize that these similarities don’t define the novel. Gatsby captured a small moment in time, while Klaussman’s story is a family saga played out over the years. One cannot understand Helena’s hatred of Nick without watching it grow. Tyler’s feelings towards Nick are all the more appalling, as they demonstrate how pathetic a man he is, having never moved past a boyhood crush. Daisy and Ed’s relationship is especially strange; Ed is so obviously disturbed, but his unwavering protectiveness and love for Daisy over the years allows us to understand, if not agree with, her loyalty to him.
Tigers in Red Weather is a heartbreaking story in a sense. Not because of it’s commentary on death, but rather on life. Dreams may come true, but once they are achieved things will never be quite what we expected. The novel doesn’t leave a reader depressed, but reflective. The question that remains is how well we know ourselves, and others.
Where: Book & Books (265 Aragon Ave, Coral Gables)
When: 8 p.m. Friday, July 27