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The Hole We're In ()

Trying To Fix A 'Hole' By Digging Deeper

Mar 7, 2010 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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Pick an adjective to describe the Pomeroys. Doomed, perhaps? Dysfunctional doesn't cover it.

The family at the center of Gabrielle Zevin's novel The Hole We're In, the Pomeroys are in money trouble, and every action only makes things worse. Roger, the patriarch, is a preacher who decides, when his youngest daughter is still very small, to go back to graduate school, leaving his wife, George, to support the family. She does this by working low-wage jobs — and by taking out a credit card in the name of her son, Vinnie.

Zevin writes:

You spend your whole life trying to get out of holes. The hole you're born into because of who your parents are. The hole you dig yourself trying to get out of that first hole. The hole your children are born into is the saddest hole of all.

Their parents give them a good head start, but the Pomeroy children come to The Hole We're In equipped with shovels of their own. Patsy, the youngest, perhaps digs farthest.

"I think she's born into a hole that comes from the fact that her parents don't have much money," Zevin says. "You can sort of purchase your way out of situations if you have money to do that. And so the biggest hole I think she comes across is when she tries to go to college, finds that she cannot get a scholarship because of a series of events that happen in the book, and ends up in the military."

Rather than live up to her name, Patsy finds herself edging into a role as the family's black sheep.

"I think she's put in a situation where she has to be the renegade," Zevin says. "I don't think she was born to be an iconoclast or anything. It just was her lot in life to be such."

And though Patsy digs plenty of her own holes, the author can't help but sympathize with the character.

"I do think she's more a victim of circumstance. It is very difficult to be a woman serving in the armed forces, and I think she comes across issues with that that make it very difficult for her to even conceive of her life as it goes on," Zevin says. "She marries very young; I'm not sure if that's a hole she digs to try to escape her family. She has a child very young. And she has to take jobs and think about things because of that, so it really is a never-ending hole that keeps getting bigger."

Though it's easy to judge the actions that Zevin's characters take, her novel reveals more and more information about who they are, and how they have been forced into financial corners that are increasingly difficult to escape. Zevin's view of life in a family suggests a Rashomon-style tale, with multiple perspectives on a shared experience, each of which illuminate an individual character's (possibly faulty) conviction that their actions are defensible.

Zevin says that if that light shines more harshly on George and Roger, the Pomeroy parents shoulder an imposing burden, and one that makes their attempts to dig out of their financial hole harder to judge at face value.

"I hope you feel sympathy for them," Zevin says. "I don't really expect people to feel empathy for them because they do some things that are fairly terrible. But I think all parents do the best they can with what they have."

Zevin says that though she's read reviews of her book that describe George as a monster, she sees the struggling mother as a woman "trying to do the best under extremely difficult circumstances."

Sometimes her best involves actions that — on the surface — seem reprehensible. She ignores bills and opens credit cards in her children's names, ruining their credit scores.

Is George, a woman who seems to think she's "trying her best," just delusional?

"She seems to me slightly more self aware than her husband, because he definitely thinks he did his best," Zevin says. "And she knows that she has certainly failed at least 2 of her 3 children, probably, in larger and small ways."

The Pomeroys don't just shovel. They also spend. Temptation is evil-twinned with the desperation the Pomeroys feel at the depth of their financial woes. Each character is drawn to something that puts recovery from ruin a little farther out of reach, and Adam and Eve, temptation's original victims, are revealed as the book's patron saints.

According to Zevin, "every story is, in some respect a creation story." But she says that the evocation of that original hard-luck pair wasn't always part of her plan.

"The things that tempt us aren't always so obvious as, like, a snake," she says. "I think that Roger — at the beginning of the book, he wants to go back to school. He wants something for himself. He feels like he's gotten his kids to this point. So his snake is such a small snake, really. It's such a modest snake. But unfortunately, it's a snake he can't afford."

As the problems of the Pomeroys snowball from financial to psychological, they only become more difficult to solve.

"I think that it's funny how much a financial hole creates all of these other holes," Zevin says. "I think debt really is such an emotional thing for people."

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