William Wharton’s sixth novel combines his concern for the value of family life--previously expressed in DAD and PRIDE--with a philosophical puzzling over the nature of reality. Early in the novel, Will Kelly, the first-person narrator, comments that “man will be happy, will be fully realized, only when we can all accept the tentativeness of life and all around us; the tenuousness of seeming reality. We need to revel in speculation without expectation of answers, only other questions.” In the course of TIDINGS, Will must learn to accept his family in this way; it is not the stable, immutable reality he has come to rely on.
Each child in the Kelly family comes home to Christmas in France bearing tidings that are difficult for Will to understand and accept: Maggie, the eldest, is considering divorce to escape her outwardly perfect marriage; Mike wants to marry his French girlfriend, Genevieve, before he has finished his schooling; Nicole wants to have a baby, though she is unmarried. Will’s wife Loretta has drifted away in the last few years of their thirty-year marriage. Only the youngest, Ben, still seems predictable. Will makes a valiant effort to take all these changes in stride, trying to put his philosophy to work.
Despite these challenges to family stability, the central images of the book are those of family unity. On Christmas morning, each Kelly discovers a signet ring in his stocking (the stockings have magically appeared--no one claims any knowledge of them), and the family stands in a circle to exchange rings in a kind of ritual wedding. That afternoon, problems are forgotten as they all work to create an ice sculpture of the Nativity.
Wharton portrays the family dilemmas with warmth and humor. Not every problem has been resolved by the end of the book--the reader does not know whether Loretta and Will’s marriage will survive--but Wharton’s lesson on “speculation without expectation of answers” makes the lack of closure still satisfying. The reader finishes the book happily exploring the possibilities of the ambiguous final chapter.