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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

“Monkeys” is what Mum calls her six children collectively, such as when she is trying to mobilize them for an outing. The association between the children and, by extension, the entire Vincent family with nonhuman animals is extended into the idea of their captivity in a zoolike environment from which all, in different ways, struggle to accept or to escape. By using one daughter, Sophie, as the narrator, Susan Minot partially reveals the family’s internal conflicts—primarily between the parents but also among the various siblings. Dad’s remoteness from the rest of the group, in part as the only non-Catholic, and Mum’s frequent, and increasingly frantic efforts to involve him create an anxious atmosphere for the children.

One evening Dad leaves the house to do an errand—possibly just to get away and drive around alone—and Mum organizes a prank for his return. She and all the children hide in the linen closet, planning to spring out and surprise him when he comes looking for them. But when he enters the home, he completely ignores their absence.

Gus says, “Why doesn’t he—?” “Ssshhh,” Mum says like spitting, and we all freeze. He moves again—his footsteps turn and bang on the hollow threshold into the TV room where the rug pads the sound.

Next we hear the TV click on and the sound swelling and the dial switching tick-a tikka tikka tick till it lands on a crowd roar, a football game.

Through the course of the novel, the gulf between the parents widens until they are separated in intent if not in permanent residence. When the mother and children spend the summer in Maine, but the father stays home in Massachusetts, Mum becomes friends, as the children initially understand it, with another man; later it is clear they are lovers. The new excitement in Mum’s demeanor, as well as the difference in the parents’ worldviews, is shown through their observations and comments on a single incident that had excited her. Mum claimed to have seen a silver fox run across the path, but Dad denied it even existed and accused her of trying to scare the children. They remembered that incident for years.

It was one of those things they remembered and mentioned now and then, about that time the silver fox streaked across Mum’s path and how her eyes were lit, not with fright, and how Dad said there was no such thing.

Rather than the parents’ divorcing, as the reader might anticipate, they stay together, but Mum is killed in an accident or possible suicide, when her car is hit by a train. Feeling isolated with their emotionally remote father unable to nurture them through this tragedy, the children (some of them now adults) go without him to scatter ashes. After that, they wonder at their future paths.

Up the ramp they went, in single file, feeling something lofty in their procession, hearing flags billow and snap, following at one another’s heels, no one with the slightest idea, when they raised their heads and looked around, of where to go next.

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