Almost every teenager goes through a phase where they find their parents super embarrassing, though generally this is because Mom insists on a 10 PM curfew when everyone else doesn’t have to go home before 11, or Dad sings along tunelessly with the car radio. For the Mellow kids, especially 13-year-old Michael and his older sister Holly, adolescent embarrassment took on a whole new meaning when they discovered their parents’ book.
Paul and Roz Mellow became notorious in the 1970s after they penned a Joy of Sex-style best-selling sex manual called Pleasuring: One Couple’s Journey to Fulfillment. The fact that they wrote such a book was cringe-inducing, but they actually modeled for the illustrations as well. In pen-and-ink drawings, the artist “rendered the parents in all their humanness, and he drew them engaged in sexual practices both common and obscure, Western and Eastern, ancient and modern, freehand and apparatus-aided.”
When the four Mellow kids find the book, “they had all been given orchestra seats to the primal scene, and now the heavy maroon curtain had gone up on the mysteries of love, which no child on earth has the privilege or right to see.”
The Position begins with that 70s-set tableau and then proceeds to follow all the Mellows into old age (the parents) and middle age (the kids), showing how the aftermath of Pleasuring affected each of them. Despite the titillating premise, this is not a book about sex; it’s about family, hopes and dreams, crushing disappointments, relationships which begin and end.
Fairly early on, it’s revealed that Paul and Roz divorced soon after the publication of their book, but exactly what happened remains a mystery for most of the novel. Instead, we follow Michael, who has journeyed to Florida at his mom’s behest to try to persuade his father to allow a publisher to reissue Pleasuring; Holly, now living in California and disconnected from the rest of her family; Dashiell, a gay Republican; and Claudia, a perpetual underachiever now attending film school in her mid-30s, using her Pleasuring trust fund to pay the tuition.
Wolitzer is an empathetic writer who makes you care about all of her characters, even when they do dumb or ill-advised things. (A scene where Michael and his dad go party with some college girls is particularly awkward.) The author captures the nostalgia of returning to a place after many years in a beautiful chapter in which Claudia tours her childhood home, which now belongs to an Indian-American family. Reaching her old bedroom, she realizes “it had rarely occurred to her that one day she’d have to leave it… that one day, she would have to give up the enclosure of her room and go out there into the world, which she, alone among her siblings, was so woefully unprepared.”
Moving from one Mellow to another, Wolitzer keeps things humming along in this affecting family saga.