The third and final protagonist of the book is Gretchen’s sister, Jane, who has so far followed a fairly conventional life path. She’s married her college boyfriend, had two kids with him, and moved from Oak Park — the diverse and progressive neighborhood where she grew up — to Lake Forest, described by Close as a rich and homogeneous small city north of Chicago, a place where Jane’s neighbors play gender-segregated bunco and assume that everyone else voted for Trump, too.
But Jane didn’t vote for Trump — in fact, she’s so appalled by him that she joins a “huddle” dedicated to progressive causes back in Oak Park. “When Jane first heard the word,” Close writes, “she imagined a group of women, heads together, making quiet plans to save the world. This, she learned, was fairly accurate.”
The ideological clash between Jane and her neighbors causes her to advocate for a move back to Oak Park, but her husband, Mike, is opposed. In fact, Mike is opposed to a lot of Jane’s ideas lately — and seems distracted by something Jane fears goes beyond politics.
This dance between the personal and the political, and the way the latter impacts the former, is the most interesting thematic element of “Marrying the Ketchups.” Things around them have fallen apart; the Sullivans are trying to hold the center, but increasingly, they’re finding that they can’t. The center, in this case, is the restaurant itself — Sullivan’s — the fate of which hangs perennially in the balance, and serves as a sort of metonymous representation of the late Bud Sullivan himself. Nobody wants to let go of it — because what would they do next? One other thing worth noting about “Marrying the Ketchups” is the trick Close has of taking what might otherwise be an ordinary exchange between ordinary family members and somehow making it riveting. Half of this talent stems from her merry sense of humor — I smiled throughout at various funny observations that also rang true — and the other half stems from the knack she has of inventing story lines that have the feel of extremely good gossip told across a hightop table over a beer with an old friend. Always, I wanted to stay for another, just to hear more.
Something I’ve been thinking about lately, as both a writer and a teacher of writing, is how difficult it is to make everyday events feel fascinating in fiction. “Marrying the Ketchups” is a good example of a book that performs this magic trick. Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that propulsiveness is a quality that’s hard to explain and still harder to teach—but if Jennifer Close ever felt like running a course on it, I’d sign up.
Liz Moore’s most recent novel is “Long Bright River.”
MARRYING THE KETCHUPS
By Jennifer Close
320 pages Alfred A. Knopf. $28.