As a debut novel, Baby of the Family shows tremendous effort by Maura Roosevelt. The book is complex. The author explores a number of social and economic issues. But the key message of this coming-of-age Great American novel is the importance of family-even a dysfunctional one.
Economics of Old Money
Although his death occurs at the beginning of the story, the character of Roger Whitby, Jr is instrumental to the plot. His life is a reflection of many third-generation moneyed Americans. There is pressure to build upon the successes of those before. But Whitby was unable to handle life’s adversity. So success eluded him. Thus, downward mobility commenced.
Fathering nine children from four wives added to the complexity of his life. The reader barely glimpses the offspring from the first marriage. So their financial status is unknown. Instead the focus of Baby of the Family is on Brooke Whitby, the youngest surviving child of the second wife; Shelley Whitby ,Roger’s youngest biological child born of the third wife; and Nick Whitby, the adopted son from the fourth and final marriage. The novel centers on the social lives and finances of these three characters.
Baby of Family #2
Brooke Whitby is the most grounded of the three. She is a nurse in Boston. Her parents’ marriage fell apart shortly after the death of her younger brother. Brooke has contact with her older siblings but is not close to them or her mother. Flashbacks give the reader a glimpse into the unraveling of her immediate family.
But the main social thread for Brooke’s story is her sexuality. She is a pregnant bi-sexual who is jilted by her same-sex partner. She has decisions to make. Her partner’s parents are minor characters important to the plot.
From an economic standpoint, Brooke is self-sufficient. But, the reading of the will displaces her. Brooke’s wages will not allow her to remain in the Back Bay (very old money) area of Boston. So added to her relationship crisis is a need to find a new place to live.
In her late thirties, Brook is considerably older than Shelley and Nick. Her compassionate nature ties her to Shelley and by extension to Nick. More mature than the younger siblings, the reader is witness to Brooke’s struggle for self-actualization as Baby of the Family unfolds.
Baby of Family #3
Shelley Whitby is the protagonist of the story. She is the connection between new and old. At just twenty-three she is not handling life very well. Her mother is mentally ill; her father long out of the picture. Shelley is lost. And very messed up.
But her character tugs at the heart. Upon hearing of Roger’s death and disinheritance, she drops out of a prestigious liberal arts school late in her senior year. She was already failing.
Shelley runs home to an empty New York City abode. Her mother is absent, whereabouts unknown. She immediately looks for a job she is qualified for. Her choices are prostitution or as an assistant to a blind architect/author. She lands the job with Yousef Kamal, the author, but she justly suspects her surname played a role in her hiring.
Shelley’s story is intriguing and heartbreaking. And also a bit sickening. Her relationship with the Kamal family gives great credence to the #MeToo movement. Maura Roosevelt excels in tying current social issues into the lives of her characters.
Baby of the Family
A year younger than Shelley, adopted son Nick Whitby is the baby of the family. His connection to the rest of the Whitby offspring is tenuous at best. He is an angry young man. He sees his mother’s marriage and his subsequent adoption as the actions that destroyed his happy childhood. Thus it is easy to understand his anti-capitalist beliefs and actions.
Nick is involved with a group that lands a terrorist label. After an incident literally blows up, he runs to Shelley knowing she will hide him. She does. But she withholds the information of their father’s death.
Social and Economic Issues
The author tackles key issues. Family dysfunction is first and foremost. Income inequality plays a significant role as do a host of sexual issues including fidelity. Other social issues include the value of a liberal arts education, work ethic (or lack thereof), alcoholism and mental illness.
But above all, Baby of the Family is about familial love. Roosevelt shows how extended families can still share this type of love. The dynamics between Brooke, Shelley and Nick ring true. Sibling bonds are every bit as important as those of parent and child.
Throughout the novel, the author posits the question “Are you one of THOSE Whitby’s?” As a Roosevelt related to “Those” Roosevelt’s she has a basis of knowledge on how succeeding generations are impacted by wealth or success. Her learned insights are apparent in The Baby of the Family. Thus, her background lends authenticity to the story. America is a country of both upward and downward mobility.
But it is the character development that drives the reader forward. One is easily caught up in the individual lives of the Whitby siblings. The dysfunctional family dynamic is always present. Yet the main characters endure.
This novel is long and complex. The perfect book for college literature classes and book clubs. Busy readers may want to opt for the audio version. Baby of the Family is a tremendous first for Maura Roosevelt. Hopefully the first of many.