I think I first saw The Summer We Fell Apart by Robin Antalek in a San Francisco book store. I was too broke to buy it (because I was already in San Francisco on a trip I couldn’t really afford). I’m sure I wanted it because it was about siblings who grew up with neglectful (but fabulous) parents and how they deal with that. I must have put it on hold at the library at some point after I got back, but I don’t remember doing it. I picked it up this morning and the day disappeared while I devoured it.
The book is impressive. Antalek takes us through the pain of each particular child, one at a time, while they spend their adult lives trying to figure out how to be happy. Every bit of it rings true. The youngest child is the most protected from the damage done by the parents, buffered by her older siblings and their solid presence, while the older kids take longer to find distance and recover from the heavy hits they took from selfish, immature parents. And even as they hurt each other, the siblings love each other and try to help each other climb out of the foxholes they’ve dug for themselves. The ending is hopeful, and some of the kids even find love and happiness. But what they have, in the end, is each other.
This family has more siblings, more drama, and more damage – but it’s not really that different from my own family (though my parents were not famous artistic people, but more Joe & Judy Average). Except in this family, you get to see how everyone feels. Everyone but the dad, who dies from a brain tumor (though even with him we get glimpses). In real life, you don’t necessarily get to see inside your parents’ heads for a glimpse of what the hell they were thinking about while your childhood went down the drain.
I think the hardest sibling to read about is the oldest, Kate. How she made excuses for the faults of her father while being a parent to her three younger siblings. How she finally took off and never looked back. How she let her need for her father’s approval destroy the only healthy, loving, romantic relationship in her life. How she still tried to make everything ok for her siblings, even as adults, and failed miserably and felt completely unappreciated by them. I saw pieces of myself and both of my sisters in this poor woman. Lucky for us, we’ve all healed a lot more than she has by the end of this book.
I find it hard to believe that Antalek might have grown up in a loving, supportive environment – that’s how realistic this book feels. I have no clue if/how much of it may be autobiographical, and I really don’t care. I just know that she has constructed a family of extraordinary veracity and complexity, and reading their story feels like witnessing a crime and its aftermath.