Michael Cunningham’s “Flesh and Blood,” is one of the best novels I’ve read so far this year.
Constantine Stassos is a Greek immigrant with ambition, drive and a fierce temper. His wife Mary works hard to maintain the ideal or at least the illusion of perfection in her family. Constantine’s three children are each touched, destroyed, or changed by their parents’ behavior, especially their father's.
Cunningham’s characterization is brilliant. Every thought, every action, every belief held by the people in “Flesh and Blood” rings true and results in a stunning display of cause and effect.
Susan, the eldest daughter is forever changed by her father’s lack of boundaries, and Zoe, the youngest, the one named for Constantine’s Greek heritage, is essentially ignored until the other two children have grown up and moved away from home. Constantine shows a unique tenderness to this wild child as they work together in the garden.
There’s something different about Billy, Constantine’s only son, and that fact haunts Constantine, a feeling left unsaid—at least in the verbal sense—but always there between them nonetheless. Here’s an excerpt:
“When Constantine hit him he felt was obliterating a weakness in the house. He was cauterizing a wound. The back of his hand struck Billy’s jaw hard, scraped across his teeth with a cleansing burn. He heard Mary’s scream from a distance. Billy’s head snapped back and Constantine hit him again, this time with the heel of his hand, a smack solid and sure as a hammer driving a nail deep into pine.”
The novel opens with a scene in which Constantine as a young boy works hard to make things grow, going so far as to carry bits of rich soil in his mouth so that he may drop it onto his poorly soiled plot of a garden. The image of the garden shows up again when he and his daughter Zoe work to produce beautiful vegetables, loaded with hidden caustic pesticides.
“She raised the tomato to her mouth, and Constantine had an urge to yell, ‘Don’t it’s poisoned.’ Which was ridiculous. It was no more poisoned than most of what people ate, and probably less. But as he watched her bite into the tomato, a chill shot through his heart.”
A stunning metaphor for the family affected by Constantine’s devotion and poisonous weaknesses.
- Originally from Vermont, I now live in North Carolina. My work can be found in recent issues of REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, Storyglossia, The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, wigleaf, and Pank, among others, and forthcoming from Gargoyle #57 and REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters. One of my stories has been translated into Farsi by Asadollah Amraee, and many others by Jalil Jafari, two of which have been published in the Iranian journal, Golestaneh Magazine. For two years I worked as an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine. Currently, I serve as a mentor for Dzanc's Creative Writing Sessions. I'm working on two novels and a short story collection. In May, I was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.