In the broader culture of the American family, every family is its own subculture, and the one mapped in Mona Simpson's novel "Commitment" manages to be both a model of the intricate network of familiar coordinates — love, money, art, work — and an intimate portrait of each individual caught, for better or worse, in its web. The individuals in this case are three siblings — Walter, Lina and Donnie — with alternating and overlapping parts in the larger story of a family's complicated life.
Complicating this family's life, most of all, is the mother, Diane, who when we first meet her is succumbing to a depression so severe that it incapacitates her, forcing her dear friend and fellow nurse Julie to commit her (that's one "commitment") to a mental health hospital and to assume the care of Lina and Donnie, 17 and 13. Walter has just gone off to college at UC Berkeley, which Lina suspects is what allowed her mother to finally fall apart. Thus the mother is at once missing and, in her figurative and literal withdrawal, a powerful presence in the family's story. (The father, as in Simpson's earlier novels, is not in the picture.)
As Walter adjusts to the new freedoms and demands of college; Lina, an aspiring artist, sees her prospects diminish, and Donnie, an inspired if poor student, begins to get in trouble, their every decision and dilemma is haunted by questions about money, their mother and each other. And because of their mother's condition and their own precarious situation they are, together, largely alone in the world, whose promise and perils we see through the filter of the siblings' experience.
Which brings us back to the larger social, cultural and emotional strains sharply and movingly conveyed through the smaller lens of these three people: the art world via Lina, business and real estate via Walter and the allure and pitfalls of addiction via Donnie — all colored by longing and fear in the palette of the 1970s and '80s. Whatever happens, their love and commitment (again!) to one another is unquestioned and unchanging.
George Eliot's "Middlemarch" comes up more than once in the story — recommended, mentioned, passed on — and in the way social, cultural and temporal reality is revealed and understood through intimate subplots, "Commitment" does seem to take the great Victorian novel for a template of sorts — updated for a world where "commitment" is forever being redefined, but love abides.
Ellen Akins is the author of the story collection "World Like a Knife" and four novels. She lives in Wisconsin.
By: Mona Simpson.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 384 pages, $29.