California Literary Review

Book Review: Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussman

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August 8th, 2012 at 9:52 am

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Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussman
Tigers in Red Weather
by Liza Klaussman
Little, Brown and Company, 368 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆


Summer People

A potential reader sizing up Liza Klausmann’s new novel, Tigers in Red Weather, would do well to pay more attention to the cover art – a vintage photo from the Conde Nast archives showing two models on a beach, their red straw hats and parasols silhouetted against the blue sea – than to the knowledge that Klausmann is Herman Melville’s great-great-great granddaughter and that the title is taken from a Wallace Stevens poem. The book, in the end, is a bit more upscale beach read than Great American Novel.

Most of the book takes place on Martha’s Vineyard in the middle decades of the twentieth century. This is not the coastal New England of Klaussmann’s literary forebear. It is a world of summer people and summer houses, tennis at the club and cocktails on the lawn. It’s an insular world in more senses than one, despite side trips to Florida, Boston, New York, and Hollywood.

Two cousins, Nick and Helena, have summered all their lives at Tiger House, a family property named for a tiger skin rug, though Helena, the poorer of the two, must make do with a smaller cottage next door. However, the first chapters take place elsewhere, as we learn of Nick’s unsatisfying reunion with her husband, Hughes, just returned from World War II, and her struggles with the role of wife. Meanwhile, Helena enters a disastrous marriage to the shady Avery Lewis, who exists on the fringes of the film industry and worships the memory of a dead actress.

Despite their misgivings (vigorously suppressed in Helena’s case), the two settle into their marriages and produce a child each: Nick’s daughter Daisy and Helena’s son Ed. The central portion of the novel takes place in the summer of 1959, when Daisy and Ed now entering adolescence, discover the dead body of a murder victim while staying at Tiger House with Nick and Helena.

We do eventually learn, more or less, how the victim came to be murdered, and the possibility of the family having an even closer connection to the death preoccupies at least some of its members for years. However, Klaussman focuses more on the relationships between family members, the private hurts, dissatisfactions and resentments that have built up between them over the years, and the outlets and accommodations they have found – drinking, flirtation, pills, adultery. Nick throws herself into the role of perfect hostess; Helena resents her strong-willed cousin’s attempts to rescue her from Avery Lewis. Daisy, enduring the usual conflicts of adolescence, worships her glamorous mother but is intimidated by her. The curiously withdrawn and self-possessed Ed simply goes his own way.

We experience the events of that summer twice, first through Daisy’s eyes and then again, after we’ve already experienced some of its aftermath, through Hughes’s. Nick, Helena, also have their turns as the centers of authorial consciousness. The narrative skips and jumps through the years, mostly forwards, but sometimes backward. Structuring a narrative around shifting perspectives and alternating voices has become something of a convention these days, but here I wasn’t quite sure what it was meant to accomplish. It’s hard to know what to read as causation, and what as correlation. What connections are we meant to see between the different events we witness, and why have those moments been chosen, instead of others? Hughes’s section of the narrative is the most illuminating, as we gain new insight into the events of the summer of 1959, and learn the secret that has so affected his marriage.

The rather lurid but unquestionably juicy story of Helena’s marriage also threatens to unbalance the narrative somewhat. Her life with Avery Lewis, who lives surrounded by boxes of old clothing and crime scene photos, dreaming of completing his lost love’s final picture, as soon as he at last gets the financing together, is quite simply more dramatic than anything going on in the Cheeveresque world of Nick and Hughes. Yet it gets relatively little space. One of Avery Lewis’s quirks is his eagerness to keep his wife drugged, thanks to a complaisant Hollywood doctor of his acquaintance. It’s a chilling detail, but the perceptions of a woman under heavy sedation are, inevitably, a little blurred.

In the end, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Hollywood is simply less comfortable territory to Klaussmann than the east coast. Given the unambiguous moral rot of Avery Lewis and his Hollywood acquaintances, and the fact that his only other references to California are mentions of Scientology and the Zodiac Killer, it seems the west coast stands for bad things in the world of the book. One interpretation of the book’s events, towards which much of the narrative pushes us, would be that it’s the intrusion of this corruption into the world of Tiger House that leads to the murder. But even that conclusion is undercut in the novel’s final pages.

And what are we meant to make of the east coast world of Nick and Hughes, and of Daisy? I was not sure to what degree we were meant to see their conflicts and dissatisfactions as the products of a particular time and place. Chappaquiddick makes its way into the story but largely, it seems, as an aberration. Klaussman seems nostalgic for the social world she portrays despite the frequently unattractive behavior of its inhabitants. Pushed further, this ambivalence could have brought a greater urgency to the narrative.

Yet there’s plenty to enjoy here; the evocations of food and drink, clothes and music, give the book a sensuous texture, as well as locating us in time. Klaussmann captures the sensations of summer on the island with great precision as well, and the scenes in which Daisy channels her adolescent angst into her tennis game are wonderfully immediate. The book deftly brings together elements of the psychological thriller and of the intergenerational family drama, and successfully evokes both the sensory pleasures and simmering tensions of a summer retreat.

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