(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Although Monkeys is being marketed as a novel, it could as easily be considered a collection of interconnected short stories. The Vincent family’s story begins in February, 1966, and ends in May, 1979, with seven episodes in between described in what might be called chapters, but which also work as discrete stories. Much of what would be central in a traditional novel, the mother’s death, for example, takes place between episodes in this book, and both the texture of the family’s life and the essence of the nine characters must be inferred from what Minot chooses to reveal.

The narrative strategy behind Minot’s approach to her story is one key to the seemingly minimalist rendering of what in other hands might be a family saga of much greater scope, drawn to a much finer scale. The first episode, called “Hiding,” is narrated in first person by Sophie, the second eldest child. Thus, her sense of the family, their behavior and their interaction, dominates the reader’s initial response. In the second episode, “Thanksgiving Day,” the point of view is third-person limited, with Sophie as the observer. The seven additional episodes are narrated by a third person who is not involved in the events and who chooses to remain relatively distant from the individual consciousnesses of her characters.

Because Sophie’s childish view is the initial view, the reader more readily accepts the childlike perceptions and language of the third-person narrator who gradually assumes control of the book. In a very realistic sense, the range of observation and perception in Monkeys is childlike. A child need not dwell on the enormous fact that his or her mother is dead. That is obvious, a reality of life from the moment of the death. What the child does and must think about and observe is the effect of that death upon both the daily life of the family and the individuals’ and the group’s sense of the future. Thus, even the older children, such as Sophie, Delilah, and Caitlin, who are adults when their mother dies, do not ponder the fact of their mother’s death in nearly the detail that they consider how to feed and tend the younger children and what will become of their father and of them.

What may, at first, appear to be a denial of emotion, even coldness, eventually becomes a rendering of family life quite true and compelling in its restrained and fragile love. The Vincents are never, within the context of the story, a “storybook” family. Nor does the mother’s death work as an overpowering redemptive force, finally drawing the survivors together and imposing, from beyond the grave, the order and harmony that had been missing in the earlier episodes. What is accomplished is a heightened awareness of just how fragile all family life is, how variable in quality, and it is precisely that variation, as filtered through the selective and often disturbed memories of children, which is the primary achievement of Monkeys.

The opening sentence, “Our father doesn’t go to church with us but we’re all downstairs in the hall at the same time, bumbling, getting ready to go,” sets up a conflict that persists for much of the book, the mother and the children against the father. On the Sunday in question, the entire family goes ice-skating, and when they return home for treats, ginger ales with vanilla ice cream and Ted Mack and Ed Sullivan in the television room, the father goes back out on an unspecified errand. The children are mystified at this behavior, questioning why he did not simply stop on the way home from skating and wondering, without saying so, why he is always separating himself from them. The mother’s response is to draw them all closer to one another and to her by playing a trick on the father.

The entire family, the mother and the six children (Minnie has not yet been born), hide in the linen closet so that the father will return to an empty house and will, in turn, experience the sense of mysterious abandonment that his family often feels. According to Sophie, “Dad looks at things far away.” As the children enjoy the delicious closeness of things in the linen closet and enjoy speculating on the father’s reaction, there is a temporary bond that provides security and adventure at the same time.

The plan, however, backfires, and the sense of disassociation and insecurity, personified for the children by their father, returns. For he does not notice that his family is missing; he merely assumes his standard position in the television room and picks up the drink that he need not even look at to be sure of its location. The mother can restore one kind of order when the family emerges from the linen closet: “Mum picks up the tumbled things, restacking the stuff we knocked down, folding things, clinching a towel with her chin, smoothing it over her stomach and then matching the corners left and right, like crossing herself, patting everything into neat piles.” Neither she nor the children, however, can restore the coziness and sense of safety that came over them for a fleeting moment within the closet, and the children sense their mother’s fear of her husband and are afraid to go downstairs and join their father without her, no matter what the lure of Ed Sullivan or Ted Mack.

The confusion of family life takes on a broader context in the second chapter when the Vincents go to their grandparents’ home for Thanksgiving. Like the episode in the linen closet, there is much in the holiday journey that makes the children feel secure. The cousins are all there; everyone poses for the same pictures in the same way as always; Livia, the grandparents’ maid, quizzes Gus and Rosie’s children on their catechism (they are the only Catholics in the family); the meal, the grandmother’s lavender shoes with pink trim that the granddaughters love, the lion in the attic brought back from an African safari by a great-grandfather long since dead are all constants in their lives.

Again, as on the night they thought that they would trick their father, something happens to undermine the sense of tradition and security. At dinner, the grandfather seems angry and incoherent, forging a link between the confusion of childhood and old age, as if things do not necessarily get better. His anger suggests a perpetual struggle between order and chaos, tradition and change, that can only be frightening from the perspective of Sophie and her siblings.

In the third chapter, “Allowance,” the Vincents go on vacation to Bermuda and find the order of their lives disrupted in yet another way. Things seem different in Bermuda; their mother dresses in ways she would never dress in Massachusetts. Even more disconcerting is an atypical distraction in the mother. She bursts into tears in front of the children, suggests that there is some serious problem involving the father, and then withdraws, leaving the youngsters to speculate. They imagine money problems, argue about the effects upon the father of always spending his money on others, meaning the children, and conclude that they cannot help because they cannot ask for real information: “We’re not meant to bother him.”

Terrifying events occur—the father dumps a glass of ice water over his head in the restaurant, Gus, Jr., almost chokes and must be saved by a waiter, the father’s...

(The entire section is 3009 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXII, March 1, 1986, p. 1283.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, March 1, 1986, p. 332.

Library Journal. CXI, April 15, 1986, p. 96.

Los Angeles Times. May 7, 1986, V, p. 14.

The New Republic. CXCIV, June 23, 1986, p. 35.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIII, June 26, 1986, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, April 27, 1986, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, March 21, 1986, p. 76.

Time. CXXVII, June 9, 1986, p. 70.

Washington Post. April 23, 1986, p. B2.