Released last month, The Good Life is Kietzman’s first published novel. The author holds a degree in journalism, and has worked in both the magazine and newspaper publishing industries. She currently writes grants for the Mystic Seaport Museum. Kietzman has been chosen as R.J. Julia‘s Debut Author of the Month for March and will present her book this Tuesday evening. (See event details below.)
As the story opens, socialite Ann Barons is met with an unexpected request: to allow her aging parents to move in temporarily as they await senior housing. The wife of a successful CEO, Ann is accustomed to spending her days calorie counting, drinking and exercising to excess, shopping indiscriminately, and maintaining superficial relationships with her teenage children, Nate and Lauren. She has intentionally distanced herself from her family (and her childhood home on a farm in eastern Pennsylvania), and views her mother’s request as an obligatory imposition.
Ann’s preparations for her parents’ arrival include having the guest house redone and hiring a live-in caretaker for her father, who is suffering from dementia. She takes comfort in the belief that they’ll live separately, with the exception of a weekly family dinner and the occasional gathering – a compromise that she makes with herself in the hopes that it will appease her mother, Eileen. But Eileen has other ideas in mind, dropping by regularly (and often unannounced) to cook in the oversized but underused kitchen; it’s during these times that she hopes to reconnect with her daughter and grandchildren, who are little more than relative strangers. (It’s also her means to exert some semblance of control over things, given her current circumstances.)
Having her parents around proves even more of a disruption to her routine than anticipated, and Ann finds herself resentful of the intrusion into her otherwise charmed existence. Conversely, her children and husband, though initially hesitant, become increasingly fond of Eileen and Sam, pitching in with the caretaking duties and even willingly partaking in the occasional group activity (baking projects, game night, etc.); indeed, it’s under their grandmother’s watchful eye that Nate and Lauren begin to transcend sullen teen stereotypes to show signs of maturation. This is all rather baffling to Ann, who has gone to great lengths to avoid fostering such expectations within her immediate family unit, and her ambivalence only serves to further a self-imposed, if unwitting, alienation.
While The Good Life raises many important and timely social issues – aging, parenting, privilege, substance abuse and wealth, among them – it’s Kietzman’s well crafted characterizations that give the narrative its depth. Her characters are multi-dimensional, conflicted beings whose experiences and vulnerabilities make them distinctly human. Through Eileen’s many acts of kindness and sacrifice, the potential that lies within others – and particularly Nate and Lauren, who become their best selves under her nurturing yet unassuming guidance – is illuminated. (That Ann was exposed to this same type of care as a child but responded so differently is yet another topic for discussion.) While the same themes could have been explored in any number of ways, this rendering gives the story its emotional impact.
Though stories of families in turmoil are as old as the written word itself, Kietzman’s tale stands apart due to a rich narrative canvas that is colored by heartfelt realism and keen sociological insights. Readers will find themselves drawn into the tragedies and triumphs of this fictional family – distinct and yet utterly relatable - as they ponder their own relationships. Ultimately, once the last page has been turned, there’s one simple question that will demand repeated attention: just what is the good life?
Susan Kietzman will appear at R.J. Julia tomorrow evening, Tuesday, March 12th, at 7 pm for a book discussion/signing of The Good Life. This event is free but reservations are required; seats can be reserved online or by calling the store at 203-245-3959. R.J. Julia is located at 768 Boston Post Road in Madison.