BIRD IN HAND (2009)
Christina Kline Baker
William Morrow, 288 pages, 978006078901
Christina Baker Kline's 2013 novel Orphan Train was a runaway hit. As is often the case, this sparked interest in earlier novels and rumors of impending movie options on those works. I liked Orphan Train, so I decided to check out an earlier work, Bird in Hand. After having done so, I must conclude that Kline is a writer only now hitting her stride. Bird in Hand reads like something made for the Lifetime channel. It is perhaps good as a non-challenging beach read, but it's neither original nor substantive.
Kline employs a few of the oldest conventions in literature: a love triangle, the allure of dangerous liaisons, and the pull between stability and sexiness. At heart it is a book about Alison and Claire, two Southern girls/best friends who live life in the New York City fast lane after college. Their husbands–whom Claire and Alison met in college–become fast friends and the two couples build lives that revolve around loft parties, dining out, and gallery openings. Their close friendship slowly cools, though, when Alison and Charlie have two kids and move to the suburbs. Claire and Ben stay in New York, where he is an ambitious architect and she a writer. Alison also works in the publishing industry, though for a parenting magazine, whereas Claire's novel–based perhaps too closely on her and Alison's lives—becomes an overnight sensation. To kick off a press junket, Claire holds a large party in the city, which Alison reluctantly attends–reluctantly because she and Claire have drifted apart and Alison feels woefully inferior. In a telling moment, Alison searches for an outfit without baby vomit on it, a startling contrast to Claire's sultry ensemble.
On her drive back home to New Jersey, Alison loses her bearings and is involved in a horrible auto accident in which a small boy is killed. It's not her fault, but add grief and guilt to Alison's litany of inadequacies. As it transpires, the accident is the catalyst for serious reexamination on three sides. Charlie is bored with his soulless job, the suburbs, responsibility, and Alison. She, in turn, is feeling unappreciated and unloved. She's right. Charlie and Claire have secretly had the hots for each other since college and each sees the other as a thrilling alternative to their rock steady (read "boring") spouses. The rest of the novel follows a path we anticipate will come to no good end.
Both the scenario and the writing are more melodramatic than tragic–like a soap opera that's gone on too long. The novel also suffers in that of its four central characters, only its least developed, Ben, is in any way likable and he only because he's so clueless we feel sorry for him for much of the book. Claire is still another literary convention: a femme fatale. She's a Southern princess: spoiled, selfish, amoral, and sexy. The last quality explains why Charlie is attracted to her, but there is little reason why Claire would reciprocate. Charlie is handsome, but he's also an empty suit whose ability to manipulate others barely masks his slacker demeanor, his lack of compassion, and his overall flat affect. We can, however, see why he'd be bored with Alison. At the risk of making a gendered remark, she's one of my least favorite literary types: a Millennial mom written as though her generation invented parenting. Only toward the end does she experience more feistiness than a cleaning cloth. If the message of this novel is that life is complicated, thanks for stating the obvious. If, however, we are supposed to feel pity, sympathy, or compassion for any of them, Bird In Hand left those options in the proverbial bush. Orphan Train succeeds because Baker populated it with sympathetic characters; those in Bird in Hand are merely pathetic,