Degrees of Difficulty
Julie E. Justicz
Reviewed by Carr Harkrader
What do families do to you? Therapists, sitcoms, and Donald Trump, Jr’s attorneys have explored this question for years. Julie Justicz, an Oak Park author, takes a crack at answering it in her debut novel, Degrees of Difficulty.
In family novel classics such as William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and, more recently, Anne Enright’s The Green Road, each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the family members. Degrees of Difficulty echoes Faulkner’s work. A family is intent on burying their recently deceased mother, and Justicz’s novel finds itself exploring the inherent tensions, love, and limits of care-taking. The Novotny family live in early 90s Atlanta and their youngest child, Ben, is both severely mentally handicapped and wracked with consistent seizures. Ben’s needs are many and each family member plays a role, willingly or not, in supporting them. Perry, the father and “cockeyed optimist” of the family, is always on the hunt for the right group home or residential facility for Ben. The teenage middle child, Hugo, adores his younger brother. Ivy, a serious-minded high school senior, doesn’t exactly know what to do with Ben and hopes merely to soon escape to the relative calm of college life.
Caroline, the mom, is the most compelling character. An English professor at Emory University, she finds herself drowning in the constant care that Ben demands. Her husband’s hope for a long-term care center for Ben never pans out, as Ben is constantly determined to be “unserviceable” by facility after facility. As more of her attention goes to Ben, she finds everything else falling apart—her hopes to be recognized as a scholar by her peers, her relationship with her husband, and her patience with her other children. Mothering, she concludes, “magnified her failures” in every aspect of her life. She starts pairing Valium with her morning tea and looks at her children and husband with exhaustion, not adoration. “Is it still called love when it sucks you dry?”, she ponders at one point. Caroline recognizes how the toil of care-taking, whether the specialized kind for a child like Ben or the daily grind expected of all mothers, becomes an identity as much as an action.
In contrast, Hugo “had always lived to give Ben what he loved.” They form an inseparable duo, playing games in the driveway and doing pratfalls into the backyard pool. Although Hugo is an all-state level diver at his high school, he gives up team practices and any social life to spend all his time with his brother. Unlike everyone else in his family, he never seems exhausted with Ben or the situation the family is in. Indeed, he seems to quietly revel in being the only member of the family that can connect with Ben. At one point he describes mastering diving as “punishing his body for the brilliant things it learned how to do.” His dives are expressions of intricacy and control. These are, of course, the very things Ben lacks. Hugo seems to want to take Ben’s pain on for himself, absorbing it the way his dives are subsumed by the water’s surface.
Like those painstaking dives, Justicz’s writing can be tight, though sometimes too taut. Where his mother’s strain reveals an authentic conflict between her own needs, Hugo is written as almost a perfect child, but seems almost like an automaton in his unbreakable dedication to Ben. Is he a natural caregiver or does he see something of himself in Ben? Does Ben’s seeming lack of progress frustrate or fuel him? Later in the novel, when an unexpected action from Hugo shocks his family, there is no clear sense of why he makes the decision he does.
Meanwhile, Ivy, about to enter college, starts developing a crush on a female student in her class and her fumbling attempts to express her feelings will ring true to anyone who has ever had an awkward crush. Some of Justicz’s best writing occurs when the characters start to live into themselves, and not serve as tropes for familial roles.
Ultimately though, the novel’s greatest strength is its portrayal of the family as a character in itself. Families that have dealt with members with severe physical, mental, or emotional concerns will recognize themselves in this novel. Justicz skillfully displays the uneasy mix of rigid logistics and paralyzing emotion that shapes family decisions involving a disabled child. The “familiar discombobulation,” as Hugo calls it, of never truly knowing if a child is getting the care they need takes a toll. Ben’s struggles ripple out to each individual, but also reshape the family as a whole and how each member relates to another.
Degrees of Difficulty tells that story with honesty and heart. In her first novel, Justicz offers a promising new voice on the work that goes into being a family.
Degrees of Difficulty is available at most bookstores and for $15 at the Indie Bound website.
Carr Harkrader is a writer and educator living in Chicago. He works for a nonprofit where he writes and designs online educational resources and content. Originally from North Carolina, he is often the slowest talker amongst any group of Northerners. He enjoys both crappy reality tv and literary fiction, while often not really grasping the meaning of either.