“Anger. Love. Worry.” Repeat.

The Joys of Communicating with Family, in Susan Conley’s New Novel, Landslide.

Susan Conley. Photo by Winky Lewis

Susan Conley’s novel Landslide (2021) takes place partly on a small island off the coast of Maine—“possibly the most beautiful place in the world”—where the Archer family lives from the spring to fall. Other parts take place in a small coastal town a short skiff ride away, where they stay with relatives in the winter.

In town, the two teenage sons—Charlie, 17, and Sam, 16—navigate high school and dawning maturity. They find friends, lose friends, find their way, lose their way, in an ebb and flow that all can recognize. And in this town, which is their father Kit’s hometown, Kit is a fisherman from a long line of fishermen. He operates his trawler and has his birth family and close relations close at hand: his father, sister, uncle, cousin, and others.

The boys’ mother Jillian, from whose perspective the story is told, is also from Maine, but she is from further away, from a mill town, and she has been away to Europe for a while before her marriage. Jillian makes documentary films about the devastating changes to Maine’s culture and economy. For her current project, she interviews townspeople about the steady and alarming decline of the fishing industry.

Vast environmental, societal, and market forces form the background to all the characters’ lives. Prices for fish are falling, quotas are inequitably distributed, outsiders are taking over, the ocean is warming, and catches are smaller. These factors make it almost impossible for independent commercial fishermen to make a living anymore, let alone think of passing the business down, as in the past. Still, fishing remains a deeply ingrained way of life. For the men who do it, the work has its own satisfying rhythms of ebb and flow, of going out and then returning.

With all that disrupted, little makes sense anymore. Kit, who has suffered a terrible accident at sea, is recovering slowly at a far-distant hospital in Nova Scotia. Jillian is at home, alone with the boys. The island is both home and a trap. The town is both supportive and stifling. Her growing sons are loveably familiar—and increasingly alien, inscrutable, and unknown to her, and she to them.

There are many things to care about in this novel, but what one ends up caring the most about is communication. A main theme is how families use language, touch, glance, and gesture—to see and know each other, to read each other and connect—or not.

The novel reminds us that especially in times of trouble and change, it’s important to keep talking, just when talking gets to be the hardest of all. Nothing good will come from giving in to silence, privacy, and the closed door; from leaving or threatening to leave; from clamming up in the face of hostile, hopeless feelings (both in others and in oneself); in short, from bailing out. But Conley in Landslide acknowledges that the answer to distant, tense, and conflict-ridden relationships is not quite as simple as “keep talking.”

Why? Because there are so many wrong, unhelpful ways that people keep talking: thinking one thing and saying another; pretending; repressing emotions; keeping too much hidden, secret, and private; lying; arguing; yelling; giving speeches; judging and indicting; making false assumptions; being distracted, impatient, inattentive, inarticulate, and indirect; being stubborn, mean, or passive aggressive; not listening; speaking in code; biting one’s tongue; walking on eggshells; blaming; guilt tripping; and infusing one’s every utterance with pernicious negativity and depression. The well-meaning characters are all rich in poor communication strategies that are not working. Consequently, they often don’t know each other or feel known by each other.

What holds out hope are hard-to-achieve new chances for growth, such as through what one character calls “radical empathy”—for oneself and others. It becomes clear in the book that, no matter our age, we are all ideally on quests for greater self-awareness, or at least capable of growth. We are able to improve how we communicate by learning durable, positive mental habits, ones that will serve us and others well.

Landslide shines particular light on the difficulty of interacting with young adults, who are, by their very nature, in the process of separating and becoming more complicated, less transparent.

Teenagers and their wild ways are familiar figures in literature. “Vain, ignorant, idle, and absolutely uncontrolled!” sputters Elizabeth, describing her 16-year-old sister Lydia, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1797), for example. In the same novel Darcy rails at how, in his extended family circle, the young Wickham grew to show “vicious propensities—the want of principle.”

The compelling and urgent question that hangs over self-absorbed teens, in literature as in life, is whether their delinquent misbehaviors are a phase to be lived through or an indication of intractable, hard-wired problems. Will experimental bad habits resolve and disappear? Or will they continue and worsen in adulthood, to the detriment of the teens, their families, and society? Will a troubled, reckless “yute” age poorly, as Lydia and Wickham do, or become a solid citizen, like Darcy’s younger sister Georgiana does? Of Georgiana, Elizabeth predicts with optimism, “I dare say she will [turn out well]; she has got over the most trying age.”

Certainly, many degrees and nuances of success and failure exist, with many ways to define or measure those terms. “Turning out well” is not one thing. But there remains that deep-seated hope that one’s children fulfill their potential, achieve health and happiness, listen to their better angels, and avoid getting side-tracked or tripped up. Landslide looks perceptively at this landscape of love.

In modern neurological terms, kids are in danger while they come to look and feel more like grown-ups but while they still have, as the novel alludes to, “unformed frontal lobes.” How can a parent help to improve a teen’s mental-health outcome and be a guide onto a good path? What factors can a parent control and what factors does a parent have no control over? These high-stakes questions are at the heart of Landslide. To constant “normal” baseline parental worries, the world of the novel adds the family’s close knowledge of traumatic accidents; the present day’s easy availability of alcohol, marijuana, and drugs; and the region’s economic distress that affects all residents, from young to old. The suspense is all too real.

Landslide by Susan Conley is published this month by Knopf. She is also the author of Elsey Come Home (2018), Paris Was the Place (2013), and The Foremost Good Fortune (2011). Ms. Conley is on the faculty of the Stonecoast Writing Program at the University of Southern Maine. She lives in Portland, Maine.

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