Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann (Little, Brown and Company; 368 pages; $25.99).
When I discovered that Liza Klaussmann was the great-great-great-granddaughter of Herman Melville, my heart sank. What debut novelist can live up to such a pedigree? If Ancestry.com announced that Stephen King was the great-great-great-nephew of Edgar Allen Poe, I would nod and think what great sense that made. The same would be true if a genealogist found a link between National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward and Zora Neale Hurston. But these are established authors. Their previous work stands alone; nepotism played no role in their success.
I will admit that it was with great reluctance that I picked up Klaussmann’s debut Tigers in Red Weather. My expectations were high; however, Klaussmann surpassed all of my hopes for the novel and then some. I think Herman would have been proud.
If you are looking for traces of Melville within Klaussmann’s work, though, you will not find him. Instead, Tigers in Red Weather opens with smidgens of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is September 1945. World War II has just ended. Cousins Nick and Helena endure a hot summer night on Martha’s Vineyard at an old family estate called Tiger House. The cousins are “wearing their slips and drinking gin neat out of old jelly jars.” On the record player, “Louis Armstrong was stuck repeating that he had a right to sing the blues.” It feels like the 1920s rather than the 1940s. Nick would have been right at home in that earlier era. She is a reckless free spirit, much like Zelda Fitzgerald. Nick wants to “stuff the whole world into her mouth and bite down.”
With the war over, the cousins eagerly begin their lives. Nick and her husband, a veteran, settle in Miami. Helena and her husband settle in Los Angeles. Nick gives birth to Daisy; Helena to Ed. Nick puts up a front as she is unhappy in her present circumstances. Martha’s Vineyard feels far away, and Nick longs for home. Hughes is not the man that Nick believed him to be. In her eyes, Hughes had become “something rationed,” ordinary, and “asleep.”
In 1959, the cousins and their families reunite for the summer at Tiger House. For them, the estate reminds them of a more idyllic time, when the world was full of promise and so were they, a time when they could do anything and be anything, but that time has long passed. Nick especially misses her youth on Martha’s Vineyard: “We could do exactly as we pleased and no one expected anything of us. I even miss those horrible ration books. I wish it could be like that now, for me and Hughes. Not all stuffy and respectable.” Sometimes, Nick confesses, “I want to rip my clothes off and go running down the street stark naked and screaming my head off. Just for a…change of pace.” Nick longs to recapture that moment when she wanted to stuff the world in her mouth and bite down. Since she cannot, Tiger House becomes her refuge. There, she is like a general.
All that changes on a beautiful summer day when Daisy and Ed make a gruesome and shocking discovery. They find the dead body of a Portuguese maid. As Klaussmann writes, “Half of the girl’s face looked like it had collapsed or something, with the Man of War swimming out from her dark curly hair. The eyes were open and bulging like a frog’s, the fat tongue running between her teeth.” Just like that, the idyll is over. Tiger House loses its innocence; the real world creeps in and will not let the family go.
Klaussmann expertly tells this story from five different perspectives, which is not an easy thing to accomplish. Each voice is distinctive and compelling. As she carries us back and forth through time, Klaussmann allows us to witness the same scene as different people experienced it. She changes the lens to show how point of view matters in a story and can enhance the storytelling. Klaussmann manages to keep her plot suspenseful, especially with all of her time and character shifts. This is what makes Tigers in Red Weather so readable and enjoyable.
The events of the summer of 1959 leave a mark on Klaussmann’s characters. We see this clearly. The author would be remiss if she did not emphasize this alteration. Helena retreats deeper and deeper into her world of prescription drugs and alcohol. In fact, Helena’s narrative is jumbled and broken in parts to show her state of mind. She cannot cope with reality. Meanwhile, Ed is in his own little world. Finding the dead girl fascinated him. Perhaps he is not the boyscout his mother thinks he is. For Daisy, the discovery shakes her to the core. Hughes must confront his past and the secrets he is keeping.
Nick, though, is Klaussmann’s most interesting and most central character. Nick is the protagonist of the story. Yet many of Klaussmann’s characters also view her as their antagonist. That is no easy feat either, yet Klaussmann pulls it off without a hitch. She has such a hold over a young Daisy that Klaussmann intersperses her mother’s voice throughout Daisy’s narrative. Nick admonishes her daughter to do this and not do that. “Only horses sweat,” Daisy hears her mother say in her head, “men perspire and women glow.” Klaussmann peppers Daisy’s account with more echoes of Nick. Nick’s shadow looms over the whole story really as the other characters alternatively envy, admire, resent, love, and loathe her.
In addition to Nick, Ed’s account also stands out, but for different reasons. In contrast to Klaussmann’s other narratives, she writes that of Ed in the first person. The change is gripping, intimate, and engrossing. What we learn from Ed is shocking, but nothing Klaussman writes is implausible. Her plot is always believable. Tigers in Red Weather ends with a satisfying denouement, leaving readers to ponder the story well after they close the book.
Just as I was reluctant to begin Tigers in Red Weather, I was just as equally hesitant to finish the novel. Upon closing the book, I said aloud, “Herman who?”