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‘The Garden Party’ Is a Tale of Mismatched Families, a Wedding and Lots of Wine

THE GARDEN PARTY
By Grace Dane Mazur
212 pp. Random House. $27.

The night before a wedding is a borderland, a poignant threshold upon which two betrothed people briefly linger, surrounded by those closest to them. One such night, both an ending and beginning, is the backdrop for Grace Dane Mazur’s novel “The Garden Party.”

Adam is the groom, Eliza the bride. He is the son of Pindar and Celia Cohen, a pair of unrestrainedly eccentric academics who are hosting the titular party in their fecund, almost magical Brookline garden. As the novel opens, the couple is setting an outdoor table for 25, and, since the reader will need to keep track of the diners and then some, the inclusion of a seating-chart-as-cheat-sheet is a necessary mercy. Such an abundance of characters is a bit of a crowd in a 212-page book, and Mazur takes an impressionistic approach to her narrative, flitting from one point of view to the next and cutting between short scenes as the two families uneasily attempt to socialize.

The clans are not a natural fit. The bride’s family, the Barlows, are mostly lawyers, a profession used as shorthand for staidness. The Cohens are passionate and unusual. Adam is a poet, and one of his sisters, Sara, is a scorpion biologist turned scholar of scorpion folklore who is having an affair with a Jesuit priest. The other sister, Naomi, is psychologically fragile and compulsively altruistic. “If I’m not in an apocalyptically unhygienic environment — trying to make things even a little better for others — I feel terminally bland,” she says.

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The parents are particularly mismatched. Stephen Barlow, a corporate lawyer, listens to Adam recite a poem and wonders why poets don’t golf. “Was it simple physical ineptitude? Did their legs wobble?” His comeuppance arrives via his neighbor at the table, Celia Cohen, who tells him to “think of poems as trying to get beyond the gates of the rational to a place where everything is happening at once, where the human messes and particulars are tangled with the undergrowth of things in ways that cannot easily be described.”

“I don’t know how to think like that,” he replies.

Meanwhile, Philippa Barlow, mother of the bride, is trying to engage Pindar in small talk about tennis and family life and even his work on the history of Babylonian cooking, but her polite chatter succeeds only in reminding him of “sparrows on a telephone wire, except that they chirped about important things like falling barometric pressure and the sweet possibility of rain.” Well. Excuse Philippa for trying.

Pindar, for his part, keeps drifting off into reveries about the nature of time. He considers whether time is layered like baklava or made of filaments like a nest-shaped pastry, then sees “the pastry threads as silver, now, each strand branching into new trees of silvery time growing out from each second, all of them inhabited by breath.” Esoteric musings run in the family: Sara, refilling wine glasses, “knew it was silly to keep trying to see the dinner table itself as a scorpion, with all of its articulations and repeated segments, all those appendages hidden under the tablecloth. The image didn’t really work.” No, nor are such lofty, abstract inner lives always easy to recognize as human.

Despite a few unexpected cross-family bonds forged over asparagus, Mazur’s affections and sympathies lie so clearly with the manic-pixie-dream-family Cohens that it’s difficult to resist rooting rebelliously for the Barlows, who deserve more credit than they’re given for soldiering through a dinner with in-laws who are, at best, behaving oddly and, at worst, being precious, condescending and rude. Ultimately, “The Garden Party” is a mood piece, less concerned with the profoundly tricky merging of individuals and families than with the beguilements of summer and of love.

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