First-World Problems: On Cherise Wolas’ ‘The Family Tabor’

The story of a wealthy family with personal issues may be clichéd, but Wolas brings unique attention to detail in rich prose.

Cherise Wolas
Novel | 400 Pages | 5.5” x 8.5” | Reviewed: eBook ARC
978–1250081452 | First Edition | $27.99
Flatiron Books | New York City | BUY HERE

Image: Flatiron Books.

Often, when an author’s debut is critically acclaimed, it is bittersweet — as the author must now consider how to approach the daunting task of a follow-up success. Cherise Wolas’ debut novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, was a PEN Debut Fiction Prize longlist selection (among so many other accolades I’d need a paragraph alone to explain them). Hence, Wolas’ sophomore novel, The Family Tabor, is the book that has to emerge from the shadow of the golden older sibling. The advantage it has is its subject matter— The Resurrection of Joan Ashby follows a woman facing the consequences of starting a family over her career, but The Family Tabor begins with “The Man of the Decade,” Henry Tabor, with his perfect family in the twilight of his career. While a wealthy, middle-aged, white man may not be the most unique protagonist ever to open a novel, Wolas finds a way around this by showing us the nuances of the familial relationships between the Tabors. Henry’s “perfect” family is made up of his wife, Roma, and children, Phoebe, Camille, and Simon — all successful in their own fields, at least at surface level. Despite the amount of words committed to the lives of the family members before we see them together, there seems to be something unfulfilled in both narrative and plot — I often found myself wanting to know about Roma’s upbringing early on, despite Wolas’ rich interior prose.

As a young girl, growing up in the suburban, working-class North East of England in the early noughties, I had two favorite TV shows: MTV’s Cribs and VH1’s “The Fabulous Life of …” What always transfixed me while watching these shows was the glimpses into the lives of the rich and famous, with five-thousand dollar toilet seats and pillowcases made of the feathers from birds I have never even seen in person. From the very opening, Wolas establishes the subtle displays of wealth littered throughout the Tabor household as Harry wakes up to begin his day, from the “electric breadcrumbs” of lights that illuminate his way through the house, to the “brandy in a cut-crystal glass.” I don’t believe I’m alone in my teenage fascination with the lives of the rich and famous. Films and books such as American Psycho and The Wolf of Wall Street capitalize on our love of watching and judging the rich, burrowing ourselves into their designer closets and then condemning them for the amount of money they’ve spent to entertain us — and it’s this fascination The Family Tabor hinges on.

But this novel isn’t just rich eye candy. Fairly soon, the cracks begin to show in Wolas’ portrait of the Tabors, as Harry notes:

“I have been a lucky man. And that is true, absolutely true. But luck is a rescindable gift.”

Privilege, while ensuring you never go hungry, can’t guarantee fulfillment or happiness. Early on, Harry reflects on what he told his children when they were young, in one tender moment:

“That star right there belongs to you, Phoebe, and that one to you, Camille, and that one to you, Simon.”

To promise your children the stars is dangerous; after all, they will grow up human and clumsy. This is what we see as the family gathers in Palm Springs for Harry’s birthday. We find the now-adult children all disappointed in some way, whether it’d be a broken marriage, a failing academic career, or a fake partner to hide an inability to maintain relationships. In fact, even Harry Tabor has something to hide about the funding behind one of his projects. These small conflicts are made more tragic by the matriarch of the household’s inability to sense them:

“How fortunate she and Harry have been that neither they nor any of their children have been afflicted with any kind of serious illness, not physical, not emotional, not mental, everyone on their right paths.”

Roma may be a child psychologist, but she can’t sense the pain in her own children — perhaps because she’s not looking for it.

The story of a wealthy family with personal issues may be clichéd, but Wolas brings unique attention to detail to the stories of the children, as they arrive into the perfect world of Palm Springs pushing their dirt under the carpet. From outside the family, we may be tempted to pull them all together in an intervention and just force them to talk to each other, but then how many of us can say we have a completely open, honest relationship with our families?

LAURA MCKENZIE is a London-based prose writer, sometimes-poet, and current student of the MA writing program at Royal Holloway, University of London.