A life beginning, a life ending, a life caught in between: this is the scheme upon which Dad is based. John Tremont, at fifty-two, has lived in Europe for many years, painting, rearing a family, becoming the kind of man his parents hardly would recognize as their son. His own son has left France, set off across America to discover himself; his daughter, too, has embarked on her own life. Tremont would be willing to remain in France, painting, growing older, slowly watching the gray in his beard spread, occasionally writing or sending a Christmas card to his aging parents. Circumstances, however, force Tremont to look more closely at himself, his parents, and his children. Life, he discovers, is more complicated than he has been willing to admit. It is both more painful and more ludicrous than he has dared to realize. It also may be more beautiful, but whatever it is, it is not comfortable or easy. Oddly enough, he discovers that the anguish and the absurdity, as well as the beauty exposed by them, make life more worth living.
The conflict between generations has been a theme in literature for centuries, but Dad is less about the antagonism between one generation and another than about the struggle of one generation to comprehend the other. Each generation seems to look upon the other with awe and amazement, as if it had crawled out of the sea or landed from another planet. Each individual is so caught up in himself—or herself—that he has no time to ponder the complexities of anyone else—particularly not of those strange creatures who claim to be blood relations.
When the pain of ordinary life demands it, however, an individual such as John Tremont can rediscover the humanity of his parents and the touching vulnerability of his apparently aloof children. After all, they all are on the same odyssey; only each route from cradle to grave is different. As much as they all would like to forget this common bond of mortality, it is inevitably forced into their consciousness.
Summoned from Europe by the news of his mother’s heart attack, John Tremont discovers that it is his father, rather than his mother, who is finding it difficult to cope with the changed situation. Bette Tremont has dominated the old man for so many years that he panics at the prospect of being forced to emerge from under the shadow of her henpecking. She, too, expects life to continue as it was, with herself in control, manipulating the lives of everyone around her. In her eyes, nobody else is capable of doing anything unless she spells out precisely what it is they are to do. She believes herself to be the only person in the world with any sense; only when she is in control is anything right.
Bette McCarthy Tremont is, in many respects, the most complicated and fascinating character in this long novel. An extreme version of a type often found in life, she is an unhappy woman who has survived by never looking inward. Instead, she is always on the attack. By dominating everyone else and living completely in control of her small world, she manages to protect her position, miserable as it is. She does not expect to be happy; all she wants is the security of having everything around her familiar and the way she likes it. No change—even for the better—is permissible; this is partly because she cannot admit, even for a moment, that anyone else is capable of having an idea that is any good. Her accusations and rages usually are stimulated by a shard of truth, so that they become difficult for anyone to defend against. Other individuals give in to her, year after year, for the sake of peace. She wins by default, because it is easier for those with whom she is doing battle to yield rather than fight. Only when the issue is life or death does someone dare to stand up to her with the intent of winning.
Bette Tremont escapes into television programs, particularly soap operas, because they are an acceptable way for her to get out of herself temporarily. The noise of the television set protects her from the intrusion of her family. Without her work, without the television, without her perfect control of every situation, some other human being might—either accidentally or intentionally—penetrate her shell, reach her vulnerable inside, and hurt her. She would rather die than let that happen.
(The entire section is 1775 words.)