Book Review: Family of Origin

By Amy Reardon

Leave it to the generation that enjoyed a privilege and abundance fueled by post-WWII government subsidies to close the door behind them, handing their children an earth destroyed by greed, a democracy gone off the rails, and crushing student debt. Leave it then to a mind like CJ Hauser’s to capture what happens next: how the children abandoned in a dry well must set to work building for themselves a stairway of hope before they can climb out and face the serious work of healing the planet.

In her new novel, Family of Origin, Hauser takes to extremes the idea that the youth of today will never have it as good as their parents. The novel’s world is a fictional island off the Gulf Coast inhabited by the Reversalists, an isolated colony of scientists studying a rare species of duck they hope will prove a renegade theory: that evolution has reversed and is now going backwards. The book’s inciting incident, the death of their never-satisfied father, brings estranged half-siblings Elsa and Nolan Grey to their father’s abandoned hut on Leap’s Island, where they soon become embroiled in the book’s central quest: “They were thirty-five and twenty-nine years old, too old for this. Elsa’s life was a litany of troubles caused by the various absences of Ian Grey. Why should death be any different?”

If the secret to an emotionally satisfying novelistic journey lies in the gap between what the characters need and what they want, then Hauser does not disappoint. What Elsa and Nolan (who refer to themselves as “the children” even though they are grown) need is evidence their father loved them. They arrive seeking closure from a troubled childhood and proof they were good enough for their father’s PhD-sized standards. But as the children search his belongings for clues to why their brilliant father abandoned civilization—and with it his own children—they are surprised to discover the one living thing that sparked his joy. His field notes reveal an unexpected hopeful side, one that Elsa and Nolan craved as children. And so they must set off to find what they now want: to see for themselves what’s so special about one particular bird their father called the Paradise Duck.

In order to free themselves from the emotional bonds of their parents’ expectations and also solve the science, the children must face the truth. “Everything out there doesn’t get any less bad just because you don’t have to see it,” Elsa says. Family of Origin is a coming-of-age story, packed with revelations like Nolan’s— “maybe there were no adults in charge of anything. Maybe it was just children above children, all the way up the chain” —but modernized, with a sexy side of science.

With Family of Origin, Hauser joins a new era of writers like Mira Jacob and Carmen Maria Machado, who have neither the time nor the patience for old school beating around the emotional or physical bush. Hauser’s characters are here to give it to you straight, even when it hurts. The pain is at its glorious, titillating worst when Hauser finally gets to revealing the secret that broke the family and that Elsa and Nolan spend the first half of the book avoiding. But Hauser knows her audience and when life gets tough, a comfort animal is always nearby for a cuddle. The undowny bufflehead ducks, the subjects of the Reversalist research, are cute, fluffy, and tame. Especially endearing are Elsa’s words of encouragement to Jinx, a German Shepherd who hesitates from fear. “You are a ferocious wolf,” she reminds the dog, words one imagines Elsa would like to hear from her parents.

Using no quotation marks and no single point of view, Hauser moves deftly from the thoughts of Elsa and Nolan to the background stories of each Reversalist scientist. One of the scientists, in fact, will be familiar to those who read “The Crane Wife,” this summer in The Paris Review, Hauser’s smash hit personal essay about calling off her wedding, studying birds in the wild, and why there is nothing more humiliating than her own desires.

In Family of Origin, Hauser argues there is still room on our desperate earth for the future, still reason for the children to hope: “Nolan laughed. He sat down on the porch, knees crooked, and held his own head in his hands and laughed.” By the novel’s resolution, Hauser satisfies by bridging that emotional gap between what Elsa and Nolan want and what they need. The end feels inevitable, yet new and different.

In capturing the pressures on and the promise of the Millennial generation, Family of Origin asks whether perhaps, despite the bad news and bluster, humanity is still evolving after all. Even carrying the baggage of their parents’ unmet expectations, the Millennial generation represents the largest voting block alive today. In my view, the sooner they step into their power, the better.

Amy Reardon is an editor at The Coachella Review. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Adroit Journal and Glamour. She is at work on a novel. Follow her on Twitter @ReardonAmy.