From the outside, the Gardners of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, have a life anyone would envy. But as Adrienne Brodeur (Wild Game) reveals in her thoughtful first novel, a shiny exterior often conceals secrets and deceptions no admiring outsider could imagine.
Set during the spring and summer of 2016, Little Monsters focuses on Adam Gardner, the family patriarch, and his two adult children, Ken and Abby. Adam is a prominent marine biologist who’s dangerously stoking a manic phase of his bipolar disorder to discover the secret of whale communication he is certain will earn him scientific immortality. Ken, on the verge of a move into the major leagues of real estate development, is plotting a congressional campaign in the next election cycle, but there are worrisome cracks in the foundation of his marriage to Jenny, the daughter of a prominent Boston family. And Abby, a talented but underappreciated painter, looks forward to the exposure a profile in a major art magazine will bring, while dealing with the early stages of pregnancy. All of this is complicated by the arrival of Steph Murphy, a Boston cop and young mother who’s spending the summer on the Cape and inching closer to the Gardner family for a reason they can’t grasp.
As the gorgeous seaside summer rolls on, Ken and Abby plan a party to celebrate Adam’s 70th birthday. The siblings see it as a way to honor their father’s life and achievements, while he perceives it as another signpost on his inexorable slide into professional irrelevance. In this process, shards of the Gardners’ past—ones that carry them back more than three decades to the sudden death of Ken and Abby’s mother shortly after Abby’s birth, its impact on the children’s relationship growing up and the echoes of that tragedy into the present—emerge in unpredictable and even dangerous ways to reopen old wounds and inflict new ones.
Brodeur effectively juggles these interlocking perspectives in chapters that shift seamlessly among the viewpoints of the Gardners, Jenny and Steph, sustaining the novel’s tension until a climactic scene at Adam’s elegant birthday party. Brodeur, who grew up and still has a home on Cape Cod, makes effective use of her familiarity with the captivating qualities of that setting, its natural beauty and wildlife, to lend texture to the story. William Faulkner’s reminder that “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past” is one that applies with considerable emotional force to this quietly engaging novel.