It’s hard not to fall in love with Peggy Leon’s latest novel, A Theory of All Things, a comic drama that studies the competing forces of order and chaos inherent in all families. Representing order, more or less, is a character named Mary, the eldest sister and self-appointed lynch pin in a family of geniuses that appears, at first glance, to be hell-bent on falling apart. At the other end of the spectrum is Mark, a brilliant physicist whose faith in entropy is rivaled only by his social awkwardness. Filling in the spectrum between them is an array of artistically gifted siblings, absent parents, and hapless lovers caught in the crossfire of the family’s simmering yet mostly unspoken rage. Not since the opening chapters of Don Delillo’s White Noise have family matters been so complicated–or so true to life.
To tell the story of the dysfunctional Bennett family, Leon adopts the voices of all of her major characters. As a result, the narrative takes on a confessional quality, especially since each narrator is so willing to bear his or her soul to the reader. Yet here lies the heartbreaking beauty of the novel: even as the reader begins to understand where all of the discord within the Bennett family is coming from–and how much the siblings all really love each other–the characters never come to the same conclusions. The problem, of course, is that they’re not really talking to each other. They’re bottling their emotions and storing them for later use, all the while increasing the tension that drives the novel so forcefully forward.
Despite their differences and personality quirks, the Bennetts are a lovable family. Indeed, one of Leon’s major gifts as a storyteller is knowing how to keep the pressure building inside a narrative without blowing it apart. For the most part she does this with humor. Mark’s efforts at losing his virginity at the age of 36, for example, are as a funny as they are misguided. At the same time, though, Leon is also adept at inducing pathos, particularly with respect to the Bennett patriarch, Frank, whose losing battle with Alzheimer’s is accompanied by a tendency to wander both physically and mentally through the confusing landscape of his rapidly deteriorating memory.
All told, A Theory of All Things speaks both intelligently and emotionally to the complex nature of being in a family–or in any relationship, for that matter. Stylistically, Leon does a wonderful job of bringing the novel’s disparate narrative voices into harmony with each other. While this technique is, in some ways, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, readers will likely find a stronger parallel between this novel and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, or between the Bennetts and J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. All of this, of course, is to say that A Theory of All Things is in great company.