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It wouldn’t have occurred to me to put Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, The Royal Tennenbaums, and Darwin’s Origin of the Species into a Petri dish to see happens. We can be grateful to Galt Niederhoffer for doing just that with her debut novel, A Taxonomy of Barnacles.
The novel is set on the Upper East Side of legend – a place with knowing doormen, quiet streets and Pale Male. It centers around the Barnacle family, six sisters born to a madcap biologist of a father named Barry Barnacle, who decides at a certain point in his life to subject his daughters to one round with his beloved Darwin’s survival of the fittest – a contest to win his estate. The daughters range from twenty-nine to ten, and their names are Bell, Bridget, Beth, Belinda, Beryl and Benita. And their mother, named Bella, really doesn’t matter (this is, after all, Austen’s patriarchy at its best). These Barnacles live next door to the concretely stereotyped Finch brothers, Blaine and Billy. They’re in love, respectively, with the two oldest Barnacle girls.
Confused yet? I suppose that’s the idea. In this world of daughters and dowries, there’s a little bit of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Aureliano Buendia complex thrown in – what does it matter what their names are, it’s their conditions you’re supposed to identify with. But on a certain level, at least, Niederhoffer loses out to Marquez’s nonchalant repetition. She does care that you know one sister from another. She obviously sees these sisters, and their struggles to find their own place as well as a niche in their father’s pantheon of evolution, as crucially different from one another.
Which leads to a problem. Two-thirds of the book takes place in some chatty omnipresent narrator’s mind, and delves quite openly, and obviously, into the psyche of each girl. It often happens when they’re out doing the things that further the plot – wandering through Central Park with lovers, sneaking out at night, riding the subway. In a classic fight between show and tell, Niederhoffer makes the fatal flaw of being too concerned that her readers won’t understand her wonderfully quirky girls, so we’re left with not enough behavior to back up their resume of oddity.
The first seventy pages of the novel happen within one three hour dinner scene, where about twelve characters vie for dominance. Then, most of the action in the wonderfully written last two chapters could have spared me some grimaces of frustration and even (horror!) the temptation to skip a few pages of character description. When teenagers are forced to read Jane Austen in high school, some of them may find that the scenes seem this lengthy and inactive. But as an adult reading Austen, I’m able to savor the intricacies of her subtle protracted inner drama in each of her characters, and how she bravely lets it show in their words, not in sixty pages of unraveling the psychological underpinnings. Niederhoffer’s ambition is plain, but there’s a delicate balance between exposing the quirks of your actors and exposing the mechanisms that make them tick.
To be fair, I enjoyed the book. At its best moments, it had all the elements of a slightly sardonic romantic comedy and familial satire that Niederhoffer intended. I enjoyed most of all the characters I was given the least access to, like the snooty Blaine Finch and the unhinged second wife, Bunny. And although I loved the packed action of the last scene – set at an opening day game between the Yankees and the Red Sox – I just wish Nieferhoffer had enough faith in her characters, and her scenes, to let the bustling action of life take the front stage.