The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne: a book club discussion

December 8, 2007 at 4:33 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

In life, one is sometimes glad to be proved wrong.

ghost.jpg berne.jpg When our book club chose The Ghost at the Table for its next selection, I groaned inwardly. Oh no, here we go again, another earnest, dreary slog through a dysfunctional family’s dirty laundry. But I was in for a pleasant surprise: Suzanne Berne’s lively writing, laced with irony and humor, and her skill at creating believable, three-dimensional characters won me over early on.

There is tension and conflict aplenty in the Fiske family, largely brought about by the unacknowledged envy and resentment felt by the narrator, Cynthia, toward her older sister Frances. Initially, Frances exhibits the persona of the Woman Who Has It All: beautiful home, two daughters, loving husband, a successful career as an interior designer. But it’s a brittle surface, and cracks appear in it at a moment’s notice. For her part, Cynthia has an unattractive tendency to exploit those fissures.

Sibling rivalry is not exactly an unusual subject for a novel, but Berne brings these two women to life in such a way that the reader experiences their problems as unique to them. As is so often the case with other people’s problems – the foundation fodder for most gossip, after all – two relatively ordinary people become extraordinarily interesting. (All happy families are alike; all unhappy families, etc.)

In the course of the novel, Cynthia engages in plenty of bad behavior . Our group’s members tried to understand and empathize, rather than merely render judgment, but the sheer perversity of this pigheaded, extremely intelligent woman – she writes historical fiction for children – makes that a tall order. Sorry, “Cynnie,” no matter how much you resent your sister, you do not make a deliberate effort to seduce her husband!

Cynthia has come East to join her family for Thanksgiving in response to Frances’s entreaty. Frances has alluded obscurely to marital problems and other conflicts; she seems to feel that Cynthia’s presence at the holiday celebration would in some way alleviate her big sister’s unease. Thus does hope continually triumph over experience! (And which of us has not experienced dashed hopes in much the same circumstances?) While Cynthia lives a breezy, unattached life in California, she can distance herself from family squabbles – and her own confused, unresolved feelings about them. But coming home forces her to confront the entire untidy mess. Rather than being helpful and soothing. her presence serves only to exacerbate existing difficulties.

Ghost at the Table has a host of supporting characters, all of whom add in varying degrees to the distracting hubbub of the holiday. In particular, there is the ailing patriarch. To say that Frances and Cynthia both have ambivalent feelings toward their father is to understate things by a long chalk. For one thing, when they were still young and living at home, he installed his young lover Ilse in the family home directly upon the sad premature death of their mother. Now, not wanting to expend what’s left of her youth on the care of a sick old man, Ilse unceremoniously disposes of her husband by handing him back to his daughters.

This situation is yet another cause of strife between Frances and Cynthia. Can they resolve their differences in a meaningful way? Are decades-old conflicts amenable to resolution through the genuine, if intermittent, good will of those involved, coupled with the well-meaning intervention of sympathetic onlookers? And just who is the Ghost at the Thanksgiving table?

The action of this novel takes place primarily at the home of Frances and her husband Walter. They have the great good fortune to live in one of my favorite places in the continental U.S.: Concord, Massachusetts. Concord is positively soggy with history! I’ve been there twice, and each time I felt deeply grateful to be walking in the footsteps of louisa-may-alcott.jpg orchardhouse2.jpg Louisa May Alcott (Orchard House), emerson_rw.jpg emerson_house.jpg Ralph Waldo Emerson (whose house is preserved and open to the public),

thoreau.jpg walden-pond.jpg Henry David Thoreau (Walden Pond, of course, and so much more),

and nathaniel_hawthorne.jpg old-manse.jpg Nathaniel Hawthorne ( the splendid, though modest, Old Manse). At the time in which the events of the novel take place, Cynthia Fiske is working on a book about Mark Twain and his daughters. At first, I was impatient with all the Twain lore, as I am far more interested in the aforementioned group of worthies whose spirits remain so vividly alive in Concord. But I have to say, Berne piqued my interest in the Twain family, which was apparently far more troubled than I had hitherto realized. (Unhappy families are all different – or words to that effect, pace Tolstoy!)

Our discussion leaders kicked things off by asking each group member about her own family Thanksgiving celebrations, both present and past; we were asked to relate these recollections, if possible, to the people and events in the book. Well, that question opened the floodgates and led to a stimulating exchange of views on many facets of this fine novel.

( god-in-concord.jpg If you would like to read fiction that takes full advantage of its Concord setting, I highly recommend Jane Langton’s delightful mystery God in Concord.)


  1. “Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in:” American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] my post on Suzanne Berne’s novel Ghost at the Table, I talked about the Concord luminaries. In my several pilgrimages to that still-lovely town, […]

  2. Climate Change Destroying Walden Pond Flowers | Зелена Блогосфера said,

    […] Link [Wired] Photo credit: Roberta Rood […]

  3. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Ghost at the Table – Suzanne Berne The House on Fortune Street – Margot Livesey The Promise of Happiness and To Heaven By Water – Justin Cartwright Intuition – Allegra Goodman The Photograph – Penelope Lively Second Honeymoon and Other People’s Children – Joanna Trollope Prospero’s Daughter – Elizabeth Nunez Digging To America – Anne Tyler The Emperor’s Children – Claire Messud The Whole World Over – Julia Glass The Other Side of the Bridge – Mary Lawson The Other Side of You – Salley Vickers Elephanta Suite – Paul Theroux On Chesil Beach, Saturday, Enduring Love – Ian McEwan Trauma – Patrick McGrath Cleaver – Tim Parks Senator’s Wife – Sue Miller The Northern Clemency – Philip Hensher The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa The Human Stain, Everyman – Philip Roth Hotel Du Lac – Anita Brookner By the Lake – John McGahern The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters Love and Summer – Wm Trevor Unfinished Desires – Gail Godwin Heart of a Shepherd – Rosanne Parry (JF) […]

  4. Angelique said,

    Wow !. !! Happy Thanksgiving! . 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
    Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, and each year I like to get into the mood-extend the holiday, as it were-by reading “Thanksgiving novels.” And in addition, all these stories are mostly about family, about coming together to heal old hurts and giving them thanks for the gift of love. … . – —
    Think You Are Better Off These days Than You Had been four Yrs Ago?

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