Off to Join the Circus: A Novel
- By Deborah Kalb
- Apprentice House
- 316 pp.
- Reviewed by Heidi Mastrogiovanni
- August 14, 2023
A flamboyant, long-disappeared sister returns to the family fold.
It’s retired attorney Howard Pinsky’s 75th birthday. He’s got a nice home, a lovely wife, three treasured adult daughters, two fine grandsons with another grandchild on the way, and lots of congratulatory messages coming in from distant friends. Should be a relaxing, festive occasion, right?
Wrong. Because this milestone day is precisely when Adele, his older sister who disappeared and shattered Howard’s and their parents’ lives when Howard was 11, chooses to resurface.
In Off to Join the Circus, her first novel for adults, former journalist Deborah Kalb sets up an examination of what it means to be family, an oft-explored subject and one that Kalb visits with deftness and charm.
“What does one say to a sister one hasn’t seen or spoken to in sixty-four years,” Howard wonders, although it’s not just his reaction to Adele’s reappearance that moves this story forward. His wife, Marilyn, has of course never met her sister-in-law. His daughters have never met their aunt, and his grandsons have never met their great-aunt. Kalb moves easily between the three generations, making each character feel vivid and knowable. Off to Join the Circus underscores that no matter what age, most of us want friends, family, and love.
Adele had occasionally stayed in touch with their parents over the years, but after they died, there was no longer any communication from her. That she’d run off to join the circus was his father’s explanation of why Howard’s older sister left home.
Adele is now 80, and she’s a mystery to her brother and his family. In her first phone call to Howard in over six decades, she’s chatty and cheerful and irritating. She asks about his daughters and then says, “Don’t you have any questions for me?” Howard responds:
“You call me up after all this time and expect me to be coherent? You left me, Adele. You fucking left me. I was eleven years old.”
Kalb’s presentation of the characters populating the Pinsky family and their extended circle is entertaining and involving. Marilyn is a retired teacher and hates Adele for what she did to Howard’s family. Howard and Marilyn’s oldest daughter, Sarah, is the mother of two sons by donor insemination and has a wife who has been spending months working in her native Finland, a fact which causes her parents concern that perhaps all is not well with them.
Middle daughter Diana is in her forties and pregnant for the first time. She’s a sometimes-actor and a ghostwriter, and her family “probably would always think of her as a screwup.” The theme of the circus is an ongoing one for the Pinskys, and Diana has always been the daughter considered most like her absent Aunt Adele. “In her family, it was clear that she, Diana, was circus,” writes Kalb. “The rest of them were not circus. They all knew that.” At last, after numerous ill-advised relationships over the years, Diana is married to a kind, successful chef. Youngest daughter Lucy is a teacher recently divorced from a man who may have long been cheating on her.
Each chapter is labeled with the name of the character who is then explored within it. The characters’ individual voices are there, as is Kalb’s. Howard and Marilyn and their daughters and grandsons each get multiple chapters; Adele gets not a single one. This choice makes perfect sense. It’s not so much Adele herself as her effect on her family that forms the heart of the story.
And as unique as this situation with Adele is to the Pinskys, Kalb presents elements of their relationships that prompt universal recognition. When Adele arrives in town for a visit and stays with Howard and Marilyn, for example, she leaves her stuff all over the house, prompting Marilyn to comments to herself, “A good guest would keep their things in the guest room.” Who among us hasn’t had occasion to think that?
Adele wears very high heels and scarves; she’s an octogenarian with panache. She’s had several husbands and numerous lovers. She’s definitely circus. She starts to win over her nieces and grand-nephews, however, which threatens to make Marilyn feel betrayed. But Adele’s a good listener, too, and isn’t that what aunts are for? Lucy feels comfortable telling her about the fellow teacher she slept with after her divorce. Sophisticated Adele then tells Lucy she’s too tied up in knots and needs to chill. “Do you understand the impact your absence had on my dad? On all of us?” Lucy responds. “And now you’re back and you expect us to chill?” To which Adele is only willing to concede, “I suppose it’s difficult, yes.”
But even as the road to reconciliation with the occasionally infuriating Adele is neither smooth nor straightforward, progress is made in a way that feels realistic and satisfying. Nothing is heavy-handed in Kalb’s presentation of how the prodigal woman’s arrival changes her family. Hers is a sure hand that relays the tectonic shifts Adele’s reappearance creates. Nothing is too perfectly wrapped up, even as the novel’s end results in a rather perfect homage to the good and kind and caring aspects of being a family.
Heidi Mastrogiovanni is the author of the comedic novel Lala Pettibone’s Act Two (finalist for the Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Awards) and its sequel, Lala Pettibone: Standing Room Only (Amberjack Publishing). She is honored to have recently been named co-ambassador for the Los Angeles Chapter of the Authors Guild. A dedicated animal welfare advocate, Heidi lives with her musician husband and their rescued senior dogs.