Summary and Analysis
April 1982 (IV)
The next day Paul is still missing. At the travel agency, Norah and Bree are about to entertain a client when David calls. Paul has been found and taken to the police station.
Bree drives Norah to the station and during the drive tells Norah that she wants to start a support group for cancer patients like her. At the police station, Norah is astonished at how grown-up Paul has become. David arrives, is tender toward his son, and then makes threats about Paul’s guitar playing. Infuriated, Paul says that his dead sister doesn’t know how good she has it. Norah slaps Paul, then snaps at David. David leaves, and Norah senses that he’ll move out of their home.
Norah, Bree, and Paul leave together. Unexpectedly, Bree detours toward the Abbey of Gethsemani. They get lost and stop at a church. Norah sees a cemetery that reminds her of the one in which Phoebe is “buried.” She walks into the church, sits in a pew, and weeps for Phoebe.
When she walks outside, Paul apologizes. Bree returns with directions, and they drive to the abbey. Thomas Merton stayed there, she says. At the abbey, Paul shows them some fossils he found. Norah reflects that despite David’s hard work for the family, being a family has always seemed more difficult than it should have been.
In this chapter, Norah, like David and Caroline before her, takes a journey back to her past. Though her experience is based on the lie that Phoebe is dead, she finds peace after again grieving about losing Phoebe. Paul’s comment that Phoebe is better off than he is because she’s dead strikes Norah “like ice” and sets her off on a journey to the source of her grief and pain: her daughter’s death.
The cemetery, which resembles the one where Phoebe is supposedly buried, and the church are two places associated with healthy mourning: Norah cries openly and freely for the first time in the novel. It’s significant that Bree makes these moments of healing possible. The sisters, who have so often clashed over the proper ways to express womanhood, have now learned to live peaceably in a relationship of mutual care.
This chapter also features the moments in which the Henry family, after keeping up the illusion of stability for so long, effectively crumbles. David will be moving out soon and ending his marriage to Norah. Noticing that Paul has become a man signals the end of Norah’s motherhood. Finally, Norah lets go of Phoebe’s memory and in a sense stops being her mother as well.
But as this family breaks up, Bree is plotting the beginning of an atypical family. Her interest in starting a support group for cancer patients parallels Sandra and Caroline’s efforts with the Upside Down Society. Bree also drives the shattered remains of the Henry family to see the Abbey of Gethsemani. That the abbey was once the home of Thomas Merton is important: Merton was known for establishing connections with major Eastern religious figures such as the Dalai Lama. In other words, Merton, like Bree—and like Norah and Paul she hopes—was a master of creating families across dividing lines. If the classic nuclear family hasn’t worked for the Henry family members so far, perhaps they’ll do better with a new form.