Marriage can’t quite bring two families together in ‘The Garden Party’

Grace Dane Mazur’s “The Garden Party” is an obvious homage to Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” The novel takes place over the course of a day, culminating in a party, and weaves together the perspectives of multiple characters. It’s a bold move to invite comparisons with such a revered classic, and it doesn’t always work in “The Garden Party’s” favor, as the novel labors to contain the perspectives of a massive cast of characters.

In Mazur’s novel, the party is a rehearsal dinner near Boston where the families of the bride and groom are meeting for the first time. The Cohens are impractical academics, who brace themselves for the coming invasion of the Barlows, a family of matter-of-fact lawyers. Their daughter, a vet, has oddly become betrothed to the Cohens’ poet son.

The novel begins with Pindar Cohen, the groom’s father, a professor of ancient history, who is working on a cookbook of Babylonian recipes, none of which have survived intact. While his professional life concerns itself with fragments, his home has remained whole. But his son’s marriage feels like “a sundering,” as if his offspring’s union will jeopardize his own. It’s a touching way to begin — with the sadness that underlies a parent’s happiest moments.

At first, “The Garden Party” feels like it will be Pindar’s novel. He has the depth and idiosyncrasy to become the Clarissa Dalloway of this story, but he fades into the background as each member of the Cohen family, in turn, comes into focus. Pindar’s wife Celia, a literature professor, is supposed to be the glue of the family, but she does not provide the same function for the novel. She is less distinct than most of the other characters and even says of herself, “I have no attributes.” Adam, the groom, is even more of a shadowy outline. Although the center of the party, he and his bride Eliza look away from their families — and us — turning instead toward each other.

The two Cohen daughters shine more brightly but exist primarily as further evidence of the family’s peculiarity. Sara, who spends the first part of the novel perched on the roof overlooking the garden, has recently left her PhD program studying scorpions. She is now secretly dating a Jesuit priest whom she invited to the party. Naomi, the youngest, just returned from a disastrous trip to Romania where she tried to help ease the orphan crisis but became dangerously ill. Naomi is a special concern for the family, and her efforts to re-enter a Western world of plenty without shocking her system add poignancy to the novel. That portrait is later complicated, however, when she begins a serious flirtation with one of the bride’s married brothers.

Pindar’s mother, Leah, also weighs in, with memories of post-World War I England and pre-World War II France, including a lesbian flirtation. Rather than enriching the story’s texture, as Clarissa Dalloway’s memories did, though, Leah’s take us away from the party into her own world, pulling at the center of the novel and threatening to destabilize its elliptical orbit.

When the ultrapractical, literal, and lawyerly Barlows arrive, 10 of them in all, the novel further flits from one perspective to the next. Eliza’s father, Stephen, is perhaps the most interesting. Staring at Pindar and Celia, he wonders what sort of “practical contributions to society” they could possibly make with their study of literature and obsolete languages. He finds the Cohens irredeemably odd: “Pindar, with his patriarchal beard and posture of a buzzard, Celia with her billows of hair and bosom, Adam with those haunted shadows under his eyes, Sara with her exotic interests, angular Naomi — was that her name? — with her look of private startle.”

Such moments of delightful perception proliferate, but by the end, Pindar’s sense of impending dissolution has become a reality, for the party as well as for the novel. It is not so much that there are too many characters — and the author has provided a helpful seating chart with short descriptions of each person — but that we are invited into the consciousness of virtually every one of them.

The family, as an institution, is elastic enough that it can stretch its borders without breaking. So is a novel, within limits. But by trying to expand a story of such compact design to contain 19 unique adult personalities (plus the fleeting perspectives of six children), Mazur has pushed those limits to the breaking point.

Anne Boyd Rioux, a professor of English at the University of New Orleans, is the author and editor of six books, most recently “Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters.”

The Garden Party

By Grace Dane Mazur

Random House. 240 pp. $27.

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