The Good Parents

A young woman from the country moves to the city and disappears. Her mother has a mysterious past, which may or may not bear some relation to the daughter’s fate. Drugs and sex are most definitely involved, as are men of loose morals. The Good Parents has all the makings of a literary thriller. Except it isn’t very thrilling. In her determination to explore how children come to terms with what they’ve inherited from their parents, Joan London lets the theme overshadow the action.

At age 18, Maya de Jong amicably departs from her parents’ house in tiny, rural Warton for the bustle of Melbourne. With the help of a family friend, she starts working as a secretary; on her own, she finds a room to let and begins an affair with her boss, Maynard Flynn, the proprietor and sole other employee of Global Imports. Maya begins sleeping with him in part out of pity — somewhere in the suburbs, his wife is dying of cancer — and in part out of a desire for romance: a previous attempt to lose her virginity had been a humiliating failure. After their early morning assignations, Maya imagines herself more lovely while Maynard chats about his past, casually referencing his affairs in the Far East and an expulsion from boarding school after getting a girl pregnant. When Maynard arrives one day with a new, creepy business partner and asks Maya to leave with them, she agrees.

Why Maya agrees to go is the first part of the mystery. She leaves word for her parents, who are due to arrive for a visit, that she had to go somewhere for work and doesn’t know when she’ll be back. Toni and Jacob, frantic, assume they’re being punished for some misdeed. “If life was a test,” they think, “this is what would break them.” But they are the good parents of the title: kind, loving, supportive. Gradually, they adjust to life in Melbourne and without Maya. Toni begins canvassing the city, looking for clues, while Jacob develops a crush on Maya’s roommate. To find their daughter, they need to rely on what they know of Maya and what they remember of their own youths.

When she was Maya’s age, Toni met Cy Fisher, a mysterious figure who introduced her to the glamorous underworld of Perth. His underlings referred to the couple as “Beauty and the Beast.” Across town, Jacob passed his childhood alternately spying on his mother’s clients in her dressmaking shop and losing himself in fiction. Later he became involved in the hippie counterculture, a movement that completely passed by Toni, who found herself in the unexpected role of a gangster’s housewife. Their meeting and subsequent involvement allowed each to further dissociate from their childhoods, Toni as the extraordinary daughter of an ordinary middle-class family and Jacob as the only son of a single mother. The relationship between the past and the present is yet another part of the mystery.

The parallel narratives allow London to tease out connections between Maya and her parents. Like Jacob, Maya tends toward imaginative fancy, envisioning herself a heroic savior. She thinks of her life in narrative terms, always striving for the perfect description to include in “the on-going letter in her head.” Father and daughter also share an affection for Chekhov, London’s not-so-sly nod to a fellow trafficker in the art of domestic drama. Like Toni, Maya relishes adventure, overly confident that she can handle whatever comes her way. When Maynard offers her the choice of staying behind or leaving with him and his associate, Maya opts for the latter but recasts her decision in the language of fate: “Her legs went one after the other as if they didn’t belong to her any more.” Removing agency from the decision to leave guarantees that she won’t be responsible for what follows. Toni too can’t conceive of her life with Cy as anything but inevitable.

Back in Melbourne, London detours and eventually stalls. Toni deepens her spirituality and becomes an Earth Mother. She wonders if someone or something else will need to be surrendered in order for Maya to return, and she searches for “vibes.” Then she tries to become a Buddhist, which grants her such insights as “ll creatures acted from self-interest. The last and greatest vanity was to think you were essential.” Ultimately, though, this journey goes nowhere, as if to reinforce the idea that we can never change enough to escape our pasts. London realizes what Toni does not: within the story of our families, we are always necessary. The decisions we make in our first forays into adulthood will determine us, as will those made by our parents. Early on, Maya looks in the mirror and wonders, “When do you stop being haunted by your parents?” The answer, apparently, is never. For this author, genealogy is destiny.

In the de Jong family, London has literally represented her genre-blending project. Jacob is the literary thinker, Toni the active thrill-seeker, and Maya their (im)perfect offspring. But the rigid adherence to dichotomy this necessitates makes the real Maya hard to pin down. She is too much an equal-parts’ blend and not enough an idiosyncratic self. From Magnus, Maya’s younger brother, we learn that she “could never say no to a dare. Her name was Bandit Queen.” The Maya whom Magnus knows isn’t Jacob and Toni’s Maya, nor the naïve dreamer who opens the book. Identity slips and shifts within families, and within novels. Too much slippage, however, as here, and readers can’t reconcile the girl with her decisions. The Maya of the climax is almost unrecognizable, as indeterminate as the novel she inhabits.