Markovits' book is a perceptive look at how families function in times of stress, and it's also a loving look at a city in a permanent state of flux ... Anyone who's been in the middle of a family trying to maintain normalcy at a fraught time is bound to relate. The author proves to be a master at capturing family dynamics ... Christmas in Austin is an emotional book that never descends into pathos ... Markovits presents everyday miseries in a way that's affecting but never manipulative ... Austinites will find much to appreciate in Markovits' book, but the novel is bound to appeal to anyone who's a fan of the psychological realism of authors like Ann Beattie or Anne Tyler. He seems to suggest that nobody is ever really home, even when they're in the house they grew up in, and that families are less cohesive units than they are collections of people who are constantly and unpredictably changing. Markovits is a wonderful writer, unfailingly sensitive and intelligent, and Christmas in Austin is a gift.
Christmas in Austin is a profoundly domestic novel. The plot is desultory; what occurs is talk, plus copious inner musings about family relationships. The Essingers argue about anything — whether dinner is being cooked properly; whether it’s too cold to let the children sleep in the playhouse; whether to go out for doughnuts. Markovits specializes in innocuous little moments of daily marital abrasion ... Can routine family life, can tedium itself, be made interesting and sympathetic if you pay close enough attention to it? The answer, on the basis of this fine novel, is a resounding yes. Markovits delivers an engrossing inquiry into the nature of familiarity: family stories and code words, special places in the old neighborhood, cherished holiday rituals. Though the Essinger siblings are anything but quiet, a quiet sadness pervades this account of holiday homecoming, and of their entry into early middle age. The novel forms a post-mortem of the happy childhood and the faint sense of anticlimax that millennials carry in its aftermath. With attentive and intelligent sympathy, Markovits digs beneath Tolstoy’s dictum about happy families to raise the question, What is family happiness? ... Right down to its random-seeming ending, Christmas in Austin is aggressively inconclusive ... For what is family, after all, but a conversation that never ends?
Beyond its curious Essinger brood, the novel captures the compressed intensity of holiday gatherings: elderly parents are jarred from their settled routines, forced into hosting and accommodating; siblings reconnect or clash; non-family members try to find a sense of belonging or just endure a few days of strangeness. Though Austin is the central location, the narrative incorporates present and remembered lives in Germany, London, New York, and New England with equal perspicacity. Christmas in Austin ends with a feeling of incomplete closeness, with an almost personal attachment to all of the Essingers and a decided yearning to read about them again.