Published by Scribner
Publication date: October 2nd 2012
Gloria Garrison née Goldberg is a successful businesswoman with an eleven million dollar fashion/beauty empire. She is also self-absorbed, superficial and of an emotional temperature cold enough to make the Arctic look welcoming. She refuses to visit a dying friend in the hospital and little to no reason is given; she simply doesn’t want to go. Is it any surprise then, that as her eightieth birthday approaches, she realizes she has no one to whom she can leave her business? This despite having two sons and three grandchildren—none of whom she’s seen or interacted with in decades. She makes Cruella DeVille look warm and fuzzy.
Author Susan Isaacs is best known to me for her last book As Husbands Go: A Novel, because it crackled with inappropriate humor that made me laugh out loud, even though it was written from the perspective of a woman whose husband has been murdered. Her wit is razor sharp and her ability to home in on what people are thinking, but not saying, and then write about it, makes her books snarky fun but still very real. Goldberg Variations has kept the insight but the humor is missing. The book is told from the viewpoints of Gloria and each of her three grandchildren, Matt, Daisy, and Raquel, who she summons, in desperation, for a weekend in order to determine which will inherit her business. When, after making her announcement, the cousins respond in a wholly unexpected manner, Gloria and her carefully controlled world are thrown into turmoil.
Goldberg Variations is well done from the humanist perspective. Isaacs writes a distinctly unlikable protagonist and without backtracking or changing her, gives her a prickly humanity. It’s doubtful that Gloria will ever be viewed with fondness but some of her persona is understandable and that is no easy feat. Isaacs also covers a lot of ground in the family narrative of the Goldbergs and, again, does it with quiet perception. Daisy, Raquel, and Matt may be related, but they are also individuals and each of their stories is fleshed out with care. As events proceed, all four characters come to life as does their narrative and history.
This is a thoughtful book and, in its way, more serious than expected. Isaacs looks at life choices and how one proceeds having made them. There is no fairytale ending but the reality feels like enough. Without the outrageous humor, some of the narrative feels bland, but for those looking for something different from Isaacs, Goldberg Variations delivers.