Much the way Curtis Sittenfeld dug deep into the psyche of a fictionalized version of Laura Bush, in her great novel “American Wife,” so Montemarano has humanized the Edwards story, allowing us to look far inside at people who had seemed merely to be supporting actors in the larger drama. But while Sittenfeld’s novel was a tour-de-force study of one person, Montemarano shifts from character to character, addressing events in the round so we can experience the full extent of the havoc the senator has wrought.
The book begins in 1984. David Christie, a successful Pennsylvanian lawyer, is running for the Senate. After a campaign event at which his wife, Danielle, drinks too much, she crashes the car and kills their 16-year-old son, Nick. (The novel diverges from the real Edwards story in a number of ways, including this one: Edwards’s son Wade also died in a car accident, but one in which Wade was driving.) Guilt and grief seep slowly through the family — David, Danielle and then-10-year-old Betsy — like a poison.
The book skips around in time and point of view, so you have to pay close attention to where you are and who you are with. Suddenly it is 2010, and a 17-year-old college freshman named Avery is preparing to visit a man with advanced Parkinson’s who lives in a nursing home. Gradually we come to understand that the man is David, and that Avery is the result of his illicit liaison all those years ago.
Avery has suffered for the sins of her parents, even though, as an aide to David observes at one point: “With all due respect, the baby didn’t do anything wrong.” Her mother is alone and a bit of a mess. Her father has never officially acknowledged her, and is now unable to comprehend who she is. Avery’s obsession with David extends to an obsession with political scandals in general, which feels a bit heavy-handed but also makes sense. (Pondering the chasm between perception and reality in politicians, she makes an impassioned case for the grace and competence of Gerald R. Ford, a man who, thanks to Chevy Chase, will always be remembered as the sort of person who pours glasses of water into his ear and blows his nose into his tie.)
The past has a way of intruding on Avery’s present. We get sad little snippets of what it must be like to be the love child of two people who were never in love, one of them a national figure. “Her childhood home was often dark, the blinds drawn,” Montemarano writes. “Some days, after months of nothing, the bell would ring, a camera would flash, and her mother would slam the door.”
We also catch up with Betsy as a disaffected and anxious adult, engaged to an earnest and overly understanding man named Cal. Betsy overeats, has panic attacks, resents her father and misses her mother, dead from cancer like Edwards’s wife, Elizabeth. She, too, struggles from an inability to make peace with the past.
It’s hard to look so deeply into other people’s lives that you really understand them, except perhaps through fiction, and that is what Montemarano has done here, with deftness and subtlety. The reality of anyone is frustratingly elusive. Avery thinks of the things that have been written about her father: “So many books, so many contradictions; with every new word written the truth becomes murkier.”
The author brings pathos to everyone’s life, but it’s especially striking how much the adults — Danielle, David and Rae, David’s discarded mistress — are punished for their misdeeds, ending up, respectively, dead, in the throes of dementia and alone. At heart the book is about the damage done to children by adults. In an affecting scene a year after Nick’s death, Betsy is taken to meet the children’s author Maurice Sendak, one of several real-life figures to appear in the narrative.
“Maybe children’s book authors have a sixth sense for the hidden emotions of children,” Betsy thinks. And then, of Sendak: “He looked at her from behind his large glasses and said, ‘Child’ — she remembers that word so clearly — ‘Child, it’s okay to be sad. You won’t always be.’ ”
“The Senator’s Children” is at its most moving in its final chapter, which takes place in 1977 and is written from the point of view of Nick, the senator’s son, who will go on to die seven years later. It’s a glimpse into what this shattered family looked like when it was intact, and a poignant reminder that a short life is every bit as meaningful as a long one.