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Running Away and Being Good

June 8, 2011

Joan London, The Good Parents, 2008

Eighty pages into this book, I almost stopped reading. Eighteen-year old Maya has moved from a rural town to Melbourne, where she becomes her new boss’s lover. When her parents, Toni and Jacob, come to visit her, she has disappeared. As they try to find her, the stories of their lives are told.

Plodding through broad acres of back story, thinking these characters weren’t worth my time, that it was too predictable – oh, no,Toni is about to run away just as her daughter does years later – I almost put the book aside. But I kept reading.

I’m glad I did.

By another twenty pages I had become fond of Toni and Jacob and wanted to know what happens to them. By the end I was a believer in the world Joan London has created.

That world contains many people, all well drawn, including Toni and Jacob’s son Magnus, their friends the Garcias, Jacob’s sister Kitty, Toni’s first husband Cy Fisher, and Maya’s housemate Cecile. Most of them run away at least once, and some do it repeatedly.

Each escape is different, shaped by the runner or their situation, sometimes meticulously planned, sometimes spontaneous. The book is a study of the varieties of flight, what drives someone to flee, and how it changes the person who runs and affects those who were close to them.

The Good Parents is also about the human desire to be good. Toni and Jacob have differing concepts of goodness, which change over time. London shows how these desires and concepts are transformed by life experiences and by interactions with others. In conversation with a person she hasn’t seen in years, Toni realises “what she’d called ‘good’ was no more than fear and guilt and prudence.”  This person “overturned” her.

Toni and Jacob want to be not just good, but “good parents”, having been afflicted with supposedly bad ones. The irony is that their children react against them in ways similar to their own rebellions.

Joan London is superb at showing, in a non-judgmental way, how people change and how they remain the same over their lives. Jacob laments that he is no longer an idealistic youth, but he also sees that his idealism deflected him from what he could have been. London uses a touching image from Paradise Lost: Adam and Eve banished from the garden – the Eden of youth – but leaving Paradise “hand in hand”. It is a compelling illustration of one way of living with the disappointments of life.

I was struck by a side issue. The novel was published in 2008, and reading the early chapters I assumed it was set in the present, but began to feel that the references to technology were dated. Various hints then indicated it was set in the year 2000, for which the references were apt. How had I allowed myself to be so subservient to technology that I felt critical about an author supposedly not keeping up with it?

The Good Parents is a good book, full of both feeling and ideas, showing a deep understanding of what drives people and how they react and change as they bounce off one another. London convincingly portrays interactions between men and women and between parents and children. We find a variety of relationships, including the extreme case of a man “keeping” a woman. Multiple threads and themes weave through the novel, but do not overwhelm the reader because of our growing affection for the characters and our interest in their story.

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