Ramona Ausubel’s sparkling second novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, is packed with wisdoms. The Berkeley author’s prior work has won awards and appeared in the New Yorker; this third, glorious work will surely confirm her as a vibrant, memorable voice in contemporary American letters ... One longs to quote the many 'wisdoms' on almost every page of Sons and Daughters. A terrific exuberance and tenderness drives the telling, as it wings back and forth in time: full-blooded, sorrowing, funny, lush with backstories and images so acute you read them twice, three times.
What could seem like a predictable gimmick soon gives way to a series of weird and wonderful scenes, switching between present and past to reveal how Edgar and Fern got to where they are. Ausubel’s writing, melancholy and fine, shines in illuminating everyday scenes of life ... Even the throwaway details are terrific ... The one off-note is struck by Fern and Edgar’s frequent examination of their privileged status.
In her new book, Ausubel’s approach is straight storytelling that mines emotional truth without recourse to fabrication or the fantastic ... Ausubel alternates her drama, detailing in one chapter the next stage of the family unraveling in 1976, and in the next describing how the family formed in the late 1960s. Both time frames have their fair share of fresh, witty and skillfully imagined scenes, from young Edgar dodging Vietnam and ending up 'a misplaced toy soldier' in Alaska, to Fern going into labor and having her twins delivered by the two Swedish men who have come to assemble her desk ... One pivotal scene fails to convince — a dinner party that almost descends into a swingers’ evening — due to Edgar’s implausible behavior. Otherwise, Ausubel’s characters steer her bold and absorbing novel and keep us emotionally invested in their foibles, ideals and desires.
Much of this novel is entertaining, and it’s occasionally deeply insightful, particularly about the limitations on the lives of girls and women in mid-20th-century America ... Fern’s adventure and the children’s survivalist challenge are probably meant to be surreal, but they don’t come across that way. There’s no world-of-the-story logic to these pieces of the novel, so they just feel like realism badly done. For maddeningly long stretches, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty gets under your skin in ways it doesn’t intend. Yet this novel has its charms, including Ausubel’s giant — a kind and sensible man who’s always had to struggle, one way or another.
Ausubel writes heartfelt, quirky fiction with winsome prose ... Ausubel alternates chapters about the kids’ adventures and the parents’ quixotic journeys with those that comb back through Fern and Edgar’s childhoods, courtship, and marriage. These flashbacks elucidate the peculiar beliefs of the rich ... My writing teacher, Lucia Berlin, used to admire how Anton Chekhov would treat a princess and a maid with the same lack of judgment in his writing. Berlin thought it was the princess that more writers tended to flub, chastising her instead of conveying her humanity. Ausubel succeeds on this score — she does not scorn her princes and princesses. The princesses, in fact, fare best: Fern and Cricket especially endear through their apt, universal observations on motherhood and childhood.