Berry ripeWHAT WE ALL WANT by Michelle Berry (Random House), 235 pages, $32.95 cloth. Rating: NNN over-ambition can be disastrous for a first novelist. Fortunately, Michelle Berry knows this. She's kept What We All Want really simple, and the result is a crafty piece of writing.Two brothers return to their family home to help their sister bury their mother, Rebecca. She died a recluse, tended by her live-in daughter Hilary, who's also turned into an eccentric hermit. Hilary's brother Thomas fled their small town so he could come out, and has hidden his gay relationship from his family for 15 years. Billy, who's just lost two jobs, is a mess. His wife does nothing but eat, his daughter is anorexic, and he doesn't think about food because he'd rather drink.
Berry uses a spare and direct style to convey her characters' dilemmas. Hilary feels lonely, Thomas guilty, Billy useless. And she has a way of letting the situation speak for itself, without cluttering things up with intricate or adjective-heavy wordplay.
Hilary collects dolls, hundreds of them, and the weirdness of this comes across in small details -- a doll's lazy eye, for example. Billy gets stupidly drunk, which is conveyed by a droll description of him in his car trying to pee into an empty scotch bottle.
The funeral director, the aptly named Dick Mortimer, has a thing for Hilary, his old high-school pal, which gives him a certain sweet humanity even as he's gussying up the dead. Berry could have probed his family secrets a little more deeply. It's possible she didn't because she worried that the book, dealing as it does with morbid post-mortem practicalities -- like breaking a corpse's legs so it will fit into a coffin -- might border on the sensational. But her literary strategies tell me that she likes to keep her distance.
This is a really good first novel. Berry ought to sustain the streamlined approach for the second one, but she doesn't have to be so cautious.
SUSAN G. COLE