The Birthdays by Heidi Pitlor

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The Birthdays by Heidi Pitlor

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: The Miller siblings are all expecting their first children as they converge on Salt Island, Maine for their father's 75th birthday, when a dramatic event shifts the focus of the weekend. An exquisite examination of the struggles and joys at the heart of any family. A surprising pleasure.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571228188

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Daniel thinks the shade his wife has painted their dining room is the colour of indigestion. Then, Daniel doesn't seem to like very much about his wife at the moment. She's pregnant and loving it... but Daniel, "confined" to a wheelchair since his accident doesn't even have the anticipatory joy of fatherhood. The baby is not his, but the product of a sperm donation programme. He is a mass of self-denigration, barely subdued self-pity and seething resentments.

Meanwhile in another part of the country. Daniel's brother Jake is also about to become a father through another, differently, assisted pregnancy. His wife is also joyfully blissfully expecting her child to the exclusion of all else... particularly it feels to him, to the exclusion of Jake.

The trilogy is complete because unknown to most of the family apart from Daniel, their baby sister... the now grown-up but totally un-adult Hilary is also, accidentally, recklessly, pregnant.

All three siblings, with the two wives (there is no husband or even clearly defined 'father' to accompany the sister) are en route to Salt Island, Maine to meet up with their parents for their father's 75th birthday. Salt Island is a place from their childhood, where Jake - the financially successful one - has bought a summer house. So the parents are travelling too.

The elderly Millers are conscious of the passing years, of memories binding them and escaping them, of lost opportunities and those that might still be reached for.

The children... are still the children. Is it true that siblings never grow out of their childhood relationships to each other... that the competitions, resentments, attitudes linger on long after we have otherwise outgrown them? They get buried, rationalised... we act grown-up... but oh, there are so many lingering hurts from things said and done so many years ago, that didn't really matter even then.

As the various family members struggle to reach the island in time for the party a shattering event changes everything... but dramatic twists are not the point of The Birthdays. In this picture of a single weekend at the beach house, Pitlor takes us into the heart of the Miller family. It is an extended character-study, extended-relationship-study... and it is exquisitely executed. The differences between the person we really are and the one that we show to even our nearest and dearest, the difference between the person we really are and the one we think we are, are sharply drawn, but in a picture that only gradually unfades into view, like colours emerging from the grey of a dawn.

It is a subtle telling.

There are moments of suspense, but the dramatic action is rationed. In many ways it is a telling of what has already happened. How these people got to this point... and at times you wonder whether they'll ever be able to move beyond it. The past is told in memory - thoughts and conversations randomly arising, as they do. Nerves unravelling as happens when family reunions put love above like, and everyone has their own point (still) to prove... everyone except maybe the birthday father. Joe has learned over the years that life has limits, and that maybe that isn't such a dreadful thing, that you cannot "fix" everything, so why should you try?

Ultimately that is what the weekend is about: everybody "trying" - to be who they want to be, or who they think they should be, or to make other people be who they should be, trying (above all, desperately trying) to help - and it's comforting to know that maybe one's own family is not unique after all.

The island setting: its weather, its people, its beauty being slowly eroded could be claustrophobic... but Pitlor balances it beautifully with the wide empty ocean... neither of which she ever seems exactly to describe, but which somehow just inhabit the background as a given. The words must be there somewhere because I can see it and smell it and taste the air... but when I flick back through the pages looking for quotes, or try to remember specific passages I find nothing. Subtlety.

A gentle read that left me with a great deal of sympathy for every single character, affection for most, distaste for a couple and a certain amount of envy for anyone that has a house on Salt Island, Maine.

Our thanks to the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy Coastliners by Joanne Harris.

Buy The Birthdays by Heidi Pitlor at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Birthdays by Heidi Pitlor at

Buy The Birthdays by Heidi Pitlor at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Birthdays by Heidi Pitlor at


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Magda said:

No, I actually don't think it's true, I think that we (or many people, anyway) do grow out of their childhood competitions and resentments, some residue may linger on, but one of the marks of adulthood (as oposed to being certain age) is to be able to, genuinely behave (and think) like an adult. Maybe even feel like one, though obviously it's harder.