Douglas Kennedy’s riveting new novel bears his trademark genius for writing serious popular fiction.
Hannah Buchan leads an orderly life in a small town in Maine — a schoolteacher, married to a doctor, with two grown up children. However, her past conceals a dark secret. Thirty years ago she had a brief, dangerous fling with Tobias Judson, a high profile student activist, which she had reconciled to that internal, off-limits attic room marked “Ancient History.” But when Tobias suddenly pops up out of nowhere with a book about his radical years, her life goes into free-fall. And before she knows it, Hannah discovers that a long-ago transgression is never really forgotten.
Set amid two wildly contrasting periods of recent American life — the militant 60s and 70s, and the new-found conservatism of today — State of the Union is a remarkable portrait of one woman’s attempts to find her own way in the shifting political currents of her time. But it is also an intriguing portrait of the complexities of a long marriage, the ongoing guilt of parenthood, the perpetual tension between familial responsibility and personal freedom, and the divisive debate between liberal and conservative values that so engulfs the United States today.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Douglas Kennedy was born in New York in 1955 and now lives in London. His novels — The Big Picture, The Job, The Pursuit of Happiness and A Special Relationship have all been critically praised bestsellers.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
AFTER HE WAS arrested, my father became famous.
It was 1966 – and Dad (or John Winthrop Latham, as he was known to everyone except his only child) was the first professor at the University of Vermont to speak out against the war in Vietnam. That spring, he headed a campus-wide protest that resulted in a sit-down demonstration outside the Administration Building. My dad led three hundred students as they peacefully blocked the entrance for thirty-six hours, bringing university executive business to a standstill. The police and National Guard were finally called. The protestors refused to move, and Dad was shown on national television being hauled off to jail.
It was big news at the time. Dad had instigated one of the first major exercises in student civil disobedience against the war and the image of this lone, venerable Yankee in a tweed jacket and a button-down Oxford blue shirt, being lifted off the ground by a couple of Vermont state troopers, made it on to newscasts around the country.
‘Your dad’s so cool!’ everybody told me at high school the morning after his arrest. Two years later, when I started my freshman year at the University of Vermont, even mentioning that I was Professor Latham’s daughter provoked the same response.
‘Your dad’s so cool!’ And I’d nod and smile tightly, and say, ‘Yeah, he’s the best.’
Don’t get me wrong, I adore my father. Always have, always will. But when you’re eighteen – as I was in ’69 – and you’re desperately trying to establish just the smallest sort of identity for yourself, and your dad has turned into the Tom Paine of both your home town and your college, you can easily find yourself dwarfed by his lanky, virtuous shadow.
I could have escaped his high moral profile by transferring to another school. Instead, in the middle of my sophomore year, I did the next best thing: I fell in love.
Dan Buchan was nothing like my father. Whereas Dad had the heavy-duty WASP credentials – Choate, Princeton, then Harvard for his doctorate – Dan was from a nowhere town in upstate New York called Glens Falls. His father was a maintenance man in the local school system, his late mother had run a little manicure shop in town and Dan was the first member of his family to go to college at all, let alone medical school.
He was also one shy guy. He never dominated a conversation, never imposed himself on a situation. But he was a great listener – always far more interested in what you had to say. I liked this. And I found his gentle reticence to be curiously attractive. He was serious – and unlike everyone else I met at college back then, he knew exactly where he was going. On our second date he told me over a beer or two that he really didn’t want to get into some big ambitious field like neurosurgery. And there was no way that he was going to ‘pull a major cop out’ and choose a big bucks specialty like dermatology. No, he had his sights set on Family Medicine.
‘I want to be a small country doctor, nothing more,’ he said.
First year med students worked thirteen-hour days, and Dan studied non-stop. The contrast between us couldn’t have been more marked. I was an English major, thinking about teaching school when I graduated. But it was the early seventies, and unless you were going through the grind of med or law school, the last thing anyone had on their mind was ‘the future’.
Dan was twenty-four when I met him, but the five-year age gap wasn’t huge. From the outset, I liked the fact that he seemed far more focused and adult than any of the guys I had been seeing before him.
Not that I knew that much about men. There had been a high-school boyfriend named Jared – who was bookish and kind of arty and totally adored me, until he got into the University of Chicago, and it was clear that neither of us wanted to sustain a long distance thing. Then, during my first semester at college, I had my one short flirtation with freakdom when I started seeing Charlie. Like Jared, he was very sweet, very well read, a good talker, and ‘creative’ (which, for Charlie, meant writing a lot of what was – even to my impressionable eighteen-year-old eyes – really turgid poetry). He was heavily into dope – one of those guys who was usually smoking a joint with their breakfast coffee. For a while, this didn’t bother me – even though I was never really into his scene. Still, in retrospect, I needed this brief descent into bacchanalia. It was ’69 – and bacchanalia was in. But after three weeks of putting up with the mattress on the floor of the crash pad where Charlie lived – and his increasingly obtuse, stoned monologues from deepest Spacey Outer – there was an evening when I came over to find him sitting around with three friends, passing around a humungous joint while blaring The Grateful Dead on the hi-fi.
‘Hey …’ he said to me, then lapsed into silence. When I asked him over the din of the music if he wanted to head out to a movie, he just said ‘Hey’ again, though he kept nodding his head sagely, as if he had just revealed to me some great deep karmic secret about life’s hidden mysteries.
I didn’t hang around – but instead retreated back to campus and ended up nursing a beer by myself in the Union, while tearing into a pack of Viceroy cigarettes. Somewhere during the third cigarette, Margy showed up. She was my best friend – a thin, reedy Manhattan smartass with a big shock of black curly hair. She’d been raised on Central Park West and went to the right school (Nightingale Bamford), and was super-smart. But, by her own admission, she had ‘fucked up so badly when it came to opening a book’ that she ended up at a state university in Vermont. ‘And I’m not even into skiing.’
‘You looked pissed off,’ she said, sitting down, then tapping a Viceroy out of my pack and lighting it up with the book of matches on the table. ‘Fun night with Charlie?’
‘The usual freak show over at that commune of his?’ she asked.
‘Well, I guess the fact he’s cute makes up for …’
She stopped herself in mid-phrase, taking a deep pull off her cigarette.
‘Go on,’ I said, ‘finish the sentence.’
Another long, thoughtful drag on her cigarette.
‘The guy is high every moment of the day. Which kind of doesn’t do much good for his use of words with more than one syllable, does it?’
I found myself laughing because in true New York style Margy had cut right through the crap. She was also ruthlessly straight about what she saw as her own limitations … and why, three months into our freshman year, she was still without a boyfriend.
‘All the guys here are either ski bums – which, in my Thesaurus, is a synonym for Blah… or they’re the sort of dope heads who have turned their brains into Swiss cheese.’
‘Hey, it’s not for life,’ I said defensively.
‘I’m not talking about your Mr Personality, hon. I’m just making a general observation.’
‘You think he’d be devastated if I dumped him?’
‘Oh, please. I think he’d take three hits off that stupid bong of his, and get over it before he exhaled the second time.’
It still took me another couple of weeks to break it off. I hate displeasing people and I always want to be liked. This is something that my mother, Dorothy, used to chide me about – because also being a New Yorker (and being my mom), she was similarly no-nonsense when it came to telling me what she thought.
‘You know, you don’t always have to be Little Miss Popularity,’ she once said when I was a junior in high school, and complained about not winning a place on the Student Council. ‘And not fitting in with the cheerleading crowd seems cool to me. Because it’s really okay to be smart.’
‘A B- average isn’t smart,’ I said. ‘It’s mediocre.’
‘I had a B- average in high school,’ Mom said. ‘And I thought that was pretty good. And, like you, I only had a couple of friends, and didn’t make the cheerleading squad.’
‘Mom, they didn’t have cheerleaders at your school.’
‘All right, so I didn’t make the chess team. My point is: the popular girls in high school are usually the least interesting ones … and they always end up marrying orthodontists. And it’s not like either your father or I think you’re inadequate. On the contrary, you’re our star.’
‘I know that,’ I lied. Because I didn’t feel like a star. My dad was a star – the great craggy radical hero – and my mom could tell stories about hanging out with de Kooning and Johns and Rauschenberg and Pollock and all those other New York school bigwigs after the war. She’d exhibited in Paris, and still spoke French, and taught part time in the university art department, and just seemed so damn accomplished and sure of herself. Whereas I really didn’t have any talent, let alone the sort of passion that drove my parents through life.
‘Will you give yourself a break?’ my mother would say. ‘You haven’t even begun to live, let alone find out what you’re good at.’
And then she’d hurry off for a meeting of Vermont Artists Against the War, of which she was, naturally, the spokesperson.
That was the thing about my mom – she was always busy. And she certainly wasn’t the type to share casserole recipes and bake Girl Scout cookies and sew costumes for Christmas pageants. In fact, Mom was the worst cook of all time. She really couldn’t care less if the spaghetti came...
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