Susan Conley opens her stunning novel, “Landslide,” with a tableau that foreshadows the whole book: Jill Archer and her sons are riding in their Subaru, sparring for control of the radio. Jill proclaims her allegiance to Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, soundtrack of her Maine youth, and sings along with the anthem of the book’s title. Charlie and Sam, quintessential teenagers both, cringe at the song, at their mother, her singing – all of it! – in the jousting, bantering style of teens marking their turf.

Cover courtesy of Knopf

Right out of the gate, readers are humming along (“I took my love, and I took it down….”), rooting for Jill, and for the three of them, as they cope with the crisis in their midst: Kit, the husband, father and missing link in their clan, has been hospitalized after a horrific explosion on his fishing boat. With Kit sidelined through most of the book, the story centers on his role in, and away from, the family. Jill longs for Kit; the boys act out in his absence; and a chasm opens up the questions of what makes a marriage and a family.

Conley is an adventurer at heart, having explored foreign lands and customs in her earlier books. This time around, the foreignness pertains to the species that she dubs “wolves” – aka, boys. Their repartee, experiments in selfhood and sense of otherness fuel a tension that pervades this Maine-centric story.

“How to talk to the wolves,” she writes. “This is often the question. With their splotchy faces and tree-bark smell and bones growing longer in their sleep.”

Conley is masterful in her storytelling. She writes confidently about Jill’s growing lack of confidence in her own parenting skills. She nails the angst and doubt faced by parents of teenagers. (Portland-based Conley is herself the mother of two wolves, as she described them in an interview.) Additionally, she assigns Jill the task of narrating on behalf of her wolves, which is no small feat. Their teen-speak is a patois of pushback and obfuscation, the bane of every parent who has ever tried to communicate with a teenager. While endlessly taxed by their hormonal stage-of-life antics, Jill is also a loving and sympathetic mom.

“I finally train my gaze on Sam,” she says. “He’s something elemental to me, like good bread or water. But someone needs to save me from him.” Then, later: “Being a mother isn’t anything like I thought it would be. It’s harder. Better. More confusing. Shorter. Longer.”

In the end, this story of a family at a crossroads may well be a primer on the varieties of grieving. Sixteen-year-old Sam is mourning the loss of his best friend whose death he witnessed in an accident. Kit laments the attrition of his beloved fishing industry and, in the wake of his injuries, questions his own identity and future. And Jill agonizes over how to hold on to her husband and kids, fearful that she’s always losing ground. Factor in a nod to climate change, which Maine fishermen know only too well, and Conley has built a layered narrative of how grief visits a family and insinuates itself into their daily life.

And yet, there’s nothing glum or ponderous here. “Landslide” is smart, funny, poignant, and familiar. Conley has navigated the fissures of a family in crisis with her usual restraint and humor – all of it set against a backdrop of the state’s rugged coastline. The result is a slice of contemporary Maine life that’s as engaging as it is universal.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her book of linked essays, “Someday This Will Fit” was recently released by Bauhan Publishing.


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