Jonathan, Bobby and Clare and their baby Rebecca make an unusual family, one that they understand but nobody else does. The point is that the standard nuclear families in the book are made up of unhappy people full of regrets and unsatisfied needs. Bobby’s family falls apart when his brother is killed in a freak accident, Jonathan’s when his mother almost dies giving birth to the stillborn child she didn’t want, and Clare’s parents, attracted to their opposites, are locked in a struggle for dominance that destroys her father. The book traces the journey that brings them together, from Bobby and Jonathan’s childhood friendship to the appearance of Clare in their lives. The three of them, a gay man and his two best friends, find trust, affection and commitment together, the “home at the end of the world”.
But Cunningham understands how provisional our relationships are. Commitment is never total, even when we think it is. All of us hold something back. Circumstances change, other people break in across our path, our sympathies enlarge and contract. Some people flourish in love, others resist it. Some people just need to be alone. Through chapters in their voices we are part of the inner worlds of Jonathan, Bobby, Clare and Jonathan’s mother Alice; with one voice set against the other, we see how misled they often are about each other. It’s a book about longing for an ideal closeness that isn’t really achievable for anyone and yet, for all its sadness, there is in all these lives what the New York Times cover note calls “the potential for grace”.
Michael Cunningham is best known for his Virginia Woolf book The Hours. A Home At The End Of The World was his debut, and a very accomplished one. He’s wise and perceptive, a restrained and lyrical writer with a musical sense of harmony and discord. Highly recommended.