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Ghost at the Table (Berne) - Book Reviews

Book Reviews
There's almost no forward motion to the novel's plot, but somehow this proxy battle between Cynthia and Frances over their childhood—an effort by each sister to enforce her own version of the past and dismiss the other's memories as irrelevant or skewed—enough to make The Ghost at the Table wholly engaging, the perfect spark for launching a rich conversation around your own table once the dishes have been cleared. Cynthia can be a bitter narrator, and Frances's sepia-toned desire for "a regular old-fashioned family holiday" makes her an easy target, but Berne is not a bitter author, and forgiveness finally comes to these people in the most natural and believable ways. Despite some good shots at the hysteria that infects most of us around the fourth Thursday of November, this is a surprisingly tender story that celebrates the infinite frustrations and joys of these crazy people we're yoked to forever. All in all, something to add to your list of things to be grateful for.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


Intellectually and emotionally stimulating...recalling the world of Joyce Carol Oates or of Anne Tyler, if she were ominous.... Fresh and intriguing.
San Francisco Chronicle


Delicious.... Berne turns a witty tale of holiday dysfunction into a transfixing borderline gothic, her appealing heroine into an unreliable narrator seething with decades-old resentment.
Entertainment Weekly


This taut psychological drama by Orange Prize-winner Berne (A Crime in the Neighborhood) unfolds as San Francisco freelance writer Cynthia Fiske acquiesces to her maternal older sister, Frances, and attends the Thanksgiving family reunion Frances is hosting at her perfectly restored Colonial home in Concord, Mass. Cynthia believes her father, now 82, murdered their invalid mother with an overdose of pills when Cynthia was 13, and she has no wish to ever see him again. Within months after their mother died, their father packed Frances and Cynthia off to boarding school and married the much younger Ilse, a graduate student who worked as part-time tutor to Frances. But now he's suffered a stroke. Ilse is divorcing him, and the family is placing him in a home. Tension is high by the time the assorted guests, including Frances's complicated teenage daughters, her mysterious husband and the speech-impaired patriarch, are called to Frances's table, and it doesn't take much to fan the first flares of anger into the inevitable conflagration. Berne takes an inherently dramatic conflict—one sister's intention to obfuscate the hard truths of the past vs. another's determination to drag them under a spotlight—and ratchets up the stakes with astute observation and narrative cunning.
Publishers Weekly


Sisters, living and dead, loom large in Berne's tale of family secrets unraveled. Cynthia Fiske writes a series of historical fiction for girls, depicting the lives of remarkable women through the eyes of their slightly less-remarkable sisters. An invitation to her own sister's house for Thanksgiving in New England coincides with her need to visit Mark Twain's home in Hartford to research a new novel on the writer's daughters, whose story of a charismatic father and three troubled siblings parallels the Fiskes' history. Complicating the usual holiday tensions is the presence of their elderly father, once brash and manipulative, now disabled and facing a divorce from his much-younger wife. As the family struggles with generations of dysfunction and unspoken secrets, including the mysterious death of their mother decades earlier, Cynthia rebels by sharing the most sordid details of the long-gone Clemens family. Although she is nearing middle age, her feelings of isolation and rejection that began in childhood have left her a perpetual adolescent in relation to her family. Much like the child narrator of Donna Tartt's The Little Friend (Knopf, 2002), Berne portrays a confusing, comic, even sinister family dynamic and eschews a pat, happy ending in favor of a very real, if provocative, choice that will appeal to teen fans of family dramas.
Jenny Gasset - School Library Journal


Past family tensions, antagonisms, and lies threaten to ruin Thanksgiving for the Fiske sisters. Cynthia, the book's narrator, begins by saying that she has no intention of leaving California to attend the dinner in Concord, Massachusetts, planned by her older sister, Frances, in an attempt to reconnect them with their estranged father. Frances, a Martha Stewart-esque perfectionist with an odd husband and perplexing teenage daughters, is determined to reunite the family to clarify a muddled past and restore peace. Cynthia believes that her elderly father, now a stroke victim, was responsible for her mother's death which occurred when Cynthia was thirteen; Frances disagrees. Cynthia writes historical fiction for girls, her specialty being the stories of female writers told by a sibling, and famous writers' lives told by their daughters. Cynthia's next project is a study of Mark Twain as told by his daughters, and the similarity of the Twain family history to that of the Fiskes' provides an intriguing background for the present-day family drama taking place. Berne, winner of the 1999 Orange Prize, shapes her complex characters carefully, deftly revealing ulterior motives, misplaced blame, and inner confusion. This finely wrought psychological mystery is acute in its depictions of family dynamics and aptly reveals the harm of rivalries and secrets. Wonderfully written, this novel should appeal to female high school students who are interested in family dynamics, writers, and sisters. Any student who appreciates fine literature or aspires to write should find it a rewarding read.
VOYA


Rivaling sisters search for family truths over a Thanksgiving holiday. Frances Fiske longs for harmony and decides to host a blowout dinner to reunite her estranged family. In her quest for unity, Frances packs the house with high-wattage conflict. When three generations of the Fiske family gather, tempers flair and skeletons begin tumbling out of closets. Out of pity and a sense of obligation, Cynthia Fiske flies east from her sequestered life as a writer to join in her sister's feast. Coming home stirs up bitter memories of a lonely childhood for Cynthia. She narrates the story and at first seems to be a reliable source for learning about the Fiskes' dirty little secrets. Cynthia talks of Frances's rocky marriage, Frances's reckless teenage daughters, Frances's Martha Stewart-like obsession with interior-design perfection. Cynthia relays tales of their mother's mysterious death and their father's romantic indiscretions. A maelstrom develops in the days leading up to the big meal. All the combustible energy makes for a great read as Cynthia and Frances battle it out to preserve a particular view of their childhood. Berne (A Crime in the Neighborhood, 1997, etc.) challenges the reader to pick a side. Cynthia's paranoia creeps through her storytelling and Frances's imperious nature furthers the chaos and miscommunications, making it tough to know whom to trust. Sampling from a few genres—mystery, historical fiction, chick lit and psychological thriller—Berne cooks up a literary feast. Her tactile descriptions and enigmatic characters saturate the story and provide a filling repast. The plot can be frustrating at times—it's a struggle to discern past from present and truth from fiction. But this is intentional. Berne prefers questions to answers. This substantial tale of a dysfunctional family reunion promises a holiday, and a read, to remember.
Kirkus Reviews




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