Books

Review: ‘The Unfolding,’ by A.M. Homes

FICTION: After Obama wins the presidency in 2008, a group of Republicans — led by "The Big Guy" — vow to retake the country.

"The Unfolding" by A.M. Homes; Viking (416 pages, $28)

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It's been 10 years since A.M. Homes' last book, "May We Be Forgiven," which won the Women's Prize for Fiction, featuring the author's signature dark humor, sociological acuity and light-handed way with mayhem. Its main character was a Nixonologist by trade; conservative politics return in a more central role in the author's latest, "The Unfolding," which is unfortunately not her best.

"The Unfolding" begins in November 2008 with the loss of John McCain to Barack Obama. Despair at this turn of events galvanizes a group of rich old white guys to form an alliance to take back America. "They woke up and discovered they were not on top anymore. It's a rude awakening after hundreds of years and they're taking it hard. It's not just that Obama won, it's as though the founding fathers were assassinated."

The reader gets to hear their thoughts on this topic in truly stultifying detail as the novel tracks their meetings and conversations through the inauguration in January 2009, by which point a nefarious plan is in place.

At the center of the group is the Big Guy, a Republican moneybags who lives in Palm Springs with his wife, Charlotte; their 18-year-old daughter Meghan and her horse, Ranger, are at boarding school in D.C. The more interesting plot lines of the book are wedged in between the meet-ups of the Boring Old Man club (actually, they call themselves the Forever Men), focusing on Charlotte's drinking and secret misery and Meghan's growing understanding of her family and its place in the world. As the Big Guy explains to her:

"Your mother is an alcoholic. She's gone into treatment at the Betty Ford Center. It's one of the best places in the country for this kind of thing. ... You might remember we spent some time with the Fords years ago when you were little. The father, Gerry, was VP under Nixon and took over the presidency after Dick resigned, a thankless job if there ever was one."

Though Charlotte is a somewhat distant mom, the Big Guy and Meghan have a warm father-daughter relationship; both love history and enjoy one-upping each other with obscure George Washington trivia. But their connection is deeply shaken when, after Charlotte gets out of rehab, the couple decide to tell Meghan the shocking truth about her identity and her mother's unhappiness.

Meghan and Charlotte are both interesting characters and the book is at its best whenever they are on the page. As for the rest — well, though the ad copy for "The Unfolding" calls it a "prescient" "alternative history," it seems more informed by hindsight than prescience; since the Right actually did take back the country after the Obama years, I'm not sure what's so alternative about it.

When the excitement over a new book from a favorite author ends in disappointment, it is not fun to write about. Let's hope we don't have to wait another 10 years for better news.

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Marion Winik is a writer and book critic in Baltimore.

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This story was originally published September 28, 2022 4:30 AM.

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