Book Review: Home Fires, Judith Kirscht, Author
by Marion Hill
Home Fires is an intimate portrayal of what suspicion and betrayal can do to a family that had appeared to be close-knit and loving. The protagonist is Myra Benning, an artist living with her husband and two children in a beach house in Goleta, “Santa Barbara’s ne’er-do-well second cousin,” a setting as beautiful as she had thought her marriage was. Her husband, Derek, a marine biologist who has imparted his love of the coastal waters around his home to both his son and daughter, is adored by the pretty young things in his college classes—too much so, as Myra discovers when she hears a recorded phone message not meant for her ears. She confronts Derek and he admits the dalliance with a student but says it means nothing and that he loves her and their kids. Myra’s mother-in-law, Eleanor, assures her that such straying is common and expected from male professors tempted by nubile female students, including her own husband, Derek’s father. The wives learn to put up with the cheating rather than wreck their husbands’ careers, Eleanor cautions.
But Myra is far from sure that she can “put up with it.” She deals with her anger by taking long walks on the beach and working at her art, and finally decides to keep the family together until the eldest child, Peter, leaves for college in a few months. That doesn’t mean she has let Derek off the hook, however; she insists he not come near her while they’re still occupying the same house. One day Myra discovers she has an unsuspected talent for cartooning, when the Rabbleville Varmints—“an overgrown chicken with too much neck, a porcupine with a lousy aim, a [squawking] gull…and a heron with bad knees” appear on her drawing board. First a vehicle for working out her emotions, the antics of the Varmints later become an unexpected source of income when a newspaper contracts with her to draw a regular cartoon strip.
But Derek’s cheating seemingly isn’t the worst of his behavior. Susan, the Bennings’ 14-year-old daughter, wakes Myra one morning screaming “Bodies! All over me!…Get him off!” Derek emerges from his daughter’s bedroom saying Susan has had a nightmare, but Myra suspects he has forced himself on his own daughter. She insists on calling the police, turning Derek into a fugitive and angering Peter, who sides with his father. Even Susan, who isn’t sure herself what happened in her bedroom, pleads with Myra not to send her father away. The responding officer is Randy, who had met the Benning family several years ago after a beach accident, and who becomes a lifeline for Myra.
Kirscht’s mature writing brings the scenery and wildlife of the California coast to vivid life and also reveals a deft hand with characterization. Myra is a protagonist we sympathize with and admire, fiercely protective of her children but striving to be fair to their father and honest with herself. The reader is also made to care about other characters: Susan, who deals with adolescent insecurities along with current and half-remembered traumas; Peter, the older, more secure child who’s close to his father yet loves his sister and mother; Myra’s sister-in-law, Patricia, who sides with Myra against her own brother; Eleanor, who clings desperately to the façade of perfect family even while it crumbles around her; Derek’s father, Cornelius (Conny), who deeply loves his wife in spite of causing her anguish over the years; and Randy, who does a difficult job in law enforcement without sacrificing his humanity. Even Derek, whose passionate nature is both his appeal and his undoing, is not without his sympathetic moments. All are skillfully drawn and authentic. Even the less sympathetic characters are portrayed not as evil incarnate but mainly as having the all-too-human frailty of failing to overcome their own weaknesses.
Home Fires is a memorable novel, one that “feels real” as it portrays both the beauty and fierceness in nature, the complexity of human relationships, and the ambiguity in some life events. The reader isn’t sure through most of the book—just as Myra herself isn’t sure—whether Derek actually did what she has accused him of doing. Suspense over that question, as well as the pleasure of spending time with Kirscht’s characters and finding unexpected plot twists, keeps the reader engaged from first page to last.