Family Meal by Bryan Washington: book review
Overview: Cam has been through hell. His boyfriend died a few months before, he lost his parents when he was kid in a fatal car crash, and he's estranged from his best friend who became his only family. Unsurprisingly, he falls on destructive coping mechanisms, drowning out the world with sex and drugs even as he gets out of LA and lands in Houston once again. We follow Cam, bouncing around between old friends and new and various jobs that have him confronting the past. Then we get to know TJ, the best friend, seeing Cam's post-rehab present as well as the past through his eyes. We also see certain moments refracted through Kai, Cam's boyfriend, speaking from beyond the grave. Raw nerves and determination come together in this novel that explores grief and found family. Overall: 4
Characters: 5 The characters are the point of the novel. And they're constructed from fragments and blatant emotion and a slow build of many tiny moments. This is one of those books that only fully makes its impact once you've made it to the end and reflected back on it. Each of the main characters is complex and messy and confused. They face similar trials but handle them in their own ways. Sometimes they're able to provide each other with comfort, and other times, they can hardly help themselves.
Cam is incredibly tender and empathetic. It's why he spirals so hard when his life unwinds. He's very attuned to people's energy, and he takes in too much from others in a way that makes it hard for him to navigate the world. Cam's best moments are the quiet ones where he tries to get TJ to open up and when you see him caring for the various children that come through his life with so much care and attention. TJ is hardened in contrast, and it takes longer to get to his emotional core. He stuffs down his emotions and resists with everything he has when people want to go deeper. He cares so deeply that he doesn't know what to do with it. While there is an examination of queer romantic relationships here, what shines most are its mediations on familial love (both between blood family members and found family) and the significance of friendship. These characters build together to transmit the understanding that it's hard to be humans, and it's even harder if you insist on doing it alone.
Plot: 4 If you're a huge plot person, you'll probably get annoyed by this book. There's enough flow and a certain amount of mystery around certain aspects of Cam and TJ's backstory that there's a chance it might hook you in, but Family Meal is a novel full of quiet moments and short conversations and whispers. Even the loud moments are muffled to fit the overall tone of the book. Nothing is played up for drama or extra tension. Everything just is. The first section of the book that follows Cam's return to Houston from his point of view, and it wanders pretty aimlessly just like the character's it's about. Then we hear from Kai. These are the strangest, most fragmented pieces of the book and the plot, and honestly, for me it was a device that didn't work. The following section told from TJ's point of view offers a much more complex plot where vignettes are wound into each other moving forward and back through time to slowly build the bigger picture of their backstory and add more significance to the questions of the present moment. The plot is most present in this part, and it's some of the strongest writing.
Writing: 4 It's interesting to me just how similar this book is to Memorial. It uses the exact same skeleton and even the same location splits in Houston and Japan and glimmers of LA. The book also uses the same highly specific device of including images within certain sections. It sort of gave me deja vu. While the two main characters here struggle with how to save their friendship instead of a romantic relationship like the previous book, there are so many similarities and thematic ties between the two that I was surprised. Memorial was clearly a success. It's a framing that works, but a part of me had really wanted to see where Washington was going to go next, and this almost felt like a companion novel instead of a next evolution. That's not to say this book isn't good or that it isn't adding to Washington's work or isn't important; it's all of those things. It's just so similar.
Because of that, I have very similar feelings about the writing of this book. I feel like TJ's point of view was much stronger and had a more successful construction than Cam's or Kai's. There's an argument to make for the loose, fragmented, aimless, almost hard to follow way that Cam's section is written as a reflection of where he's at mentally, but I had a really hard time getting into the story with just how sparse and aimless it was with its focus on random details. The way that TJ's wove past and present through the completed vignettes was so much more successful and engaging, and I feel like I only started to really like Cam when I experienced him through TJ's point of view. It just ended up having the same lopsided feeling I had about Memorial.
Also like his previous book, this novel is strongest in its sense of setting. Houston is rarely memorialized in novels, and Washington does such a great job of capturing it and also brings to life the ancillary locations. Setting is so easily forgotten and hard to pull off that it makes Washington stand apart as a writer. I'm also impressed at how he can build stories that really only make their impact in the days and weeks after you've finished the book. There's something that's hard to fully attach to while you're reading that makes you come back to its themes over and over well after you've finished reading.
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