Patrick Somerville’s debut novel, The Cradle, begins as the story of a quest for a specific object, the antique cradle from which the book derives its title. However, after that particular cradle has been found and then lost again, it becomes clear that the cradle is more than a narrative device. It symbolizes the yearnings of children for parents they have lost or by whom they have been rejected, and, even more profoundly, it stands for a rebirth, a return to innocence that can make possible the reestablishment of broken family ties.
At first, The Cradle appears to present a straightforward narrative: Matt Bishop and his wife Marissa Francis Bishop are living near Milwaukee in St. Helens, Wisconsin, in June of 1997. Marissa, who is eight months pregnant, has become convinced that her baby must have the very same cradle in which she herself slept as an infant. Unfortunately, she does not know where the cradle is. When Marissa was fifteen years old, shortly after her mother Caroline had deserted her and her father, there was a robbery at the Francis home. One of the things that disappeared was the cradle. Marissa and her father Glen have always assumed that Caroline arranged the robbery. Thus, it seems likely that she still has the cradle, and Marissa has decided that Matt must find the cradle for her, even though it means that he will have to take time off from his job at the Delco chemical plant.
Matt objects to this plan. Anticipating the expense of raising a child, he has been trying to build up the family’s savings, primarily by working double shifts at the plant. He does not want to lose that extra income. Nevertheless, Marissa is adamant, and Matt feels that he has no choice but to do as she wishes. Matt has personal reasons for trying to make Marissa happy. His own childhood was miserable. He never knew his parents. Instead, he lived in an orphanage and in foster homes, where he suffered abuses that he tries not to remember. As a result, Matt has resolved to do whatever it takes to make his own marriage last so that his child will have the loving home and the security that he never had. He is committed to making his wife happy, even if to do so he must set off on what seems to him a quixotic mission.
In its second chapter, the novel moves suddenly to the year 2008, to suburban Chicago, and to a new set of characters who do not seem to have any connection with those previously introduced. Renee Owen, a successful author of children’s books, is consumed with worry because, despite her vehement objections, her son Adam has volunteered for military service and is headed for Iraq. The only hint of a possible connection between the two plots comes at the end of the chapter, when Renee and her husband Bill see a television report of a horrendous explosion at the Delco plant near Milwaukee.
The story shifts back to 1997 and Matt’s mission, which from this point on dominates the narrative. In fact, only three of the fourteen remaining chapters are set in 2008. From the third chapter on, the focus is on Matt’s adventures as, like an epic hero, he moves from place to place searching for his equivalent of the Golden Fleece. As in an epic, he begins his quest with the help of a well-wisher: His father-in-law Glen slips a paper to him on which is written the address of Caroline’s half sister, Mary Landower, in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Presumably, Mary will be able to put Matt on Caroline’s trail.
However, also like an epic hero, Matt meets with one obstacle after another. When he arrives at the address Glen gave him, he finds that Mary no longer lives there. She has sold her house to an elderly woman, Hannah Price, and though Hannah admits that she knows Mary’s new address, she will not give it to Matt until he completes a set of tasks. Sweeping down spiders, carrying bags of birdseed, and mowing the lawn are not as difficult or as dangerous as the tasks assigned to traditional epic heroes,...
(The entire section is 1623 words.)