Suburban Satire in ‘The Pessimists’
By Bethany Ball (Grove Press)
Even an optimist will enjoy The Pessimists, Bethany Ball’s engaging and biting satire about three modern-day couples raising their children in an affluent and predominantly white Connecticut suburb of New York City.
As in her previous novel, What to Do About the Solomons, the author teases apart the struggles, successes and failures of the families she writes about as well as the secrets that haunt them. There are Tripp and Virginia, the genial hosts of a New Year’s Eve party that opens the book, who are keeping secrets from each other; and Rachel, who is Jewish, and her Swedish husband, Gunter, recent transplants from Manhattan. The third pair, Richard and Margot, wrestle with questions of fidelity and mental health as well as their grief over a daughter who died in infancy. What unites these privileged couples—all looking for the best for their offspring—is their embrace of the Petra School, a private, New Agey institution that sometimes forgets to stress subjects like math and science.
Indeed, the families’ lives revolve around the unaccredited and murky Petra School—a sendup of progressive academies—and its cryptic headmistress, Agnes. She sets the tone, issuing streams of surreal memos and proclamations challenging widely accepted pedagogic practices: “Dear Petra School Parents,” she writes in one missive. “Competitive sports are inappropriate for Petra School children. Ours is a school of cooperation. Chess, however, is encouraged.”
Vaccines and the consumption of gluten are, however, discouraged. As is dairy, which Agnes links to dyslexia. There will be “no learning disabilities of any kind” at Petra, she writes in another note. There will also be no mention of Passover, or any other Jewish holidays, in the classrooms because, Agnes tells parents, “there are no Jewish teachers”—a whiff of antisemitism from the headmaster who herself has possible Nazi connections.
All of this sets the stage for the families’ lives to unravel.
Unbeknownst to virtually everyone, including his wife, Tripp has become a doomsday prepper. Among his preparations for the apocalypse is an arms repository that he creates in his basement. Virginia, for her part, is keeping her breast cancer diagnosis a secret, refusing to treat the cancer despite the concerns of her oncologist.
Rachel, desperate for her children to fit into Petra, ignores the uncomfortable antisemitism. Gunter, originally skeptical—“School is meant to be hated,” he quips. “How else will children learn to endure hateful things?”—suddenly embraces Agnes’s formula for happiness, including yoga and meditation.
To manage her anxiety, Margot obsessively immerses herself in housework while Richard, who hates his job, engages in serial extramarital liaisons as an escape.
What are we readers to make of all this? These jaded, wealthy suburbanites may seem to lead perfect lives, but, as the author shows, their unmet desires, fears and discontents are relatable and all too real.
Several loose threads remain at the conclusion of this novel, even as it winds down to an unexpected climax and a relatively satisfying ending.
Stewart Kampel was a longtime editor at The New York Times.