Top positive review
Modern Fertility Myth Meets Family Saga
on 22 April 2016
'Fremont' is a strange modern fable crossed with a family saga. At some point in the later 20th century (not sure exactly when), Rachel Roanoke, who has been exiled from her home on The Island for being a female in a society where all the women have male children, meets Hal Fremont, a handsome builder, of part Caucasian-American and part African-American stock (one of his distant relatives was a slave). The pair marry a day after meeting, relocate to Hal's home town and family home (somewhere in a dry and dusty part of America), set up Hal's building business and begin a family, naming each child after a separate American state. Hal, who was one of many brothers, wants an army of sons - but all Rachel's children apart from her second are girls. This causes increasing tension. Hal begins an affair with the wife of one of his colleagues, and focusses all his spare attention on his son Texas, ignoring his daughters. Rachel eventually begins to look elsewhere for men to father her growing brood of girls, meaning that by the time she finally stops producing children, she's had 12 daughters by four different fathers (though one daughter dies as a toddler). 'Fremont' follows all their lives as the children grow up, Hal and Rachel grow apart and the worry about what will happen when Hal is no longer around - will he leave everything to Tex, like an old-fashioned father? - grows. And all the while, Rachel designs a magnificent map of America, adding a state for each named child, testimony to her life's work.
This is an odd book, and difficult to rate. On the one hand, the writing is often stunning, and very original. There are lovely descriptions of landscape, and some memorable vignettes of family life. Hal's trips birdwatching first with the uninterested Tex, then with the much more focussed and passionate Lou (Louisiana) are beautifully captured, as are Missy's thwarted ambitions and Naomi's (New Mexico's) obsession with the ghost of her dead sister Colorado, who drowned when Naomi took her out one hot evening. Very impressively, Reeder manages to give each of Rachel's 13 children distinct personalities, from ultra-responsible Flo (Florida) to wild wanderer Ari (Arizona), tomboy craftsman Bam (Alabama) and bookish, money-obsessed Ginny (Virginia) - and more besides. Rachel's memories of her distant, mythical Island and her relationship with her uncle and aunt Walt and Shirley are beautifully captured, as are Hal's conflicted feelings, torn between his wife, his mistress, his desire to invest all in his son and his growing realization his daughters are just as important. Reeder's strange mixture of fable (Rachel becomes a sort of fertility goddess) and American family-saga is unique and in many way works well.
However, the problem with fables in a contemporary, recognizable setting is that we often expect them to be pretty believable - and I wasn't always sure 'Fremont' was. For example, how did Hal and Rachel, in modern-day America, and on one salary, manage to feed and clothe 13 children? How did Rachel survive all those pregnancies without getting either seriously overweight or very ill? If Hal's building business was built on such shaky accounting and shoddy work practices, how come it survived that long, and was still limping along in Tex's hands? How did Utah manage to get to college, when Flo was told there was no money for such things? I know this novel is in part a fable, so doesn't 'have' to be entirely believable, but I felt some of it was just too fantastic to take seriously. In addition, I felt Reeder struggled at times to keep her multiple stories going - 15 main characters are a lot to develop, and in some cases she was more successful than others. Tex's sudden progression from sympathetic, troubled boy to super-villain wasn't entirely believable, as it happened so fast. Reeder seemed undecided about whether Hal and Rachel really were the great loves of each other's lives, or whether they were an ill-matched couple who should never have got together in the first place (one does feel that the moral of this story might be not to leap into marriage!). This meant that their behaviour was rather inconsistent - sometimes they appeared to be totally fed up with each other, at other times still deeply in love. Nor did Reeder really decide whether things changed substantially when Rachel acquired Jon as a lover to match Hal's Sandra. As for the girls - while some (Flo, Arizona, Lou and Missy) were well depicted, others were thinly portrayed - Utah, for example, who largely appeared to be Arizona's shadow, or Georgia the manicurist - or stereotyped, like the aggressive and irritatingly-named Bam. I sometimes wondered whether Reeder might have done better with slightly less girls. And inevitably, manipulating so many characters and their stories meant that the plot got a bit log-jammed at times. There were long sections in the early part of the book where not a lot happened other than child-birth and Rachel sleeping with various men and getting criticized for it. Naomi, one of the more interesting girls, simply vanished from the book altogether, while Lou suddenly became the town tart for no reason (it seemed very out of character). Late in the book, Reeder had to rush to try to tie up everyone's stories, and the feud between Tex and his sisters felt hurried and inconclusive (as with the Hal/Rachel marital troubles, Reeder seemed unclear quite how villainous Tex really was. Most disappointing, perhaps, was the ending - Reeder seems to have not been sure how to conclude the book, and so introduced the modern equivalent of the deus ex machina (a car crash) to finish off one character and bring various others together. It didn't feel convincing, and the book faded out rather than having a conclusive ending.
In the end, I felt that Reeder was both trying to cram too much into one book, and avoiding traditional structure to the extent that the novel sometimes ran into danger of becoming rambling. Nevertheless, at its best this was an elegant and beautifully-written work, and I'd definitely read another novel by this writer.