When I read work by Michael Cunningham I think, “He really knows women.” And he does. He is right there in my head knowing how it feels to be a woman. All of that frustrated, crazy emotion. That desperate love. That anger. But then as I continue to read, I come to the conclusion that it is not just women he knows or homosexuals or troubled children or old men, instead he knows it all. He has a view into the soul of all humanity. And that is what I call vision in its truest sense.
Flesh and Blood is an astonishing, a moving, a painful and a beautiful book. Cunningham guides us through three generations of the Stassos family and all of the people who love them and hate them. Constantine, the patriarch, is a Greek immigrant who can’t help himself but live out the emotions his father beat into him. He wants everything, including inappropriate comfort from his teenage daughter, Susan. And yet, there is the tender boy within him still—that sad young self who is the opener of the novel. The boy who only wants his garden to grow and for people to be proud of him.
His wife, Mary, starts out filled with desire to go and do. She is covetous and believes her life will be grand until she finds she is stifled, and so gives up her desires and learns to live within:
She had switched to her tiny voice. When she spoke in that voice she seemed to be addressing someone who lived inside her, an invisible friend who shared her belief that the world was great and wide but finally too exhausting for anyone to live in it.
Susan is a replica of her mother except within her she contains a great ball of rage, which is not unleashed until her son Ben’s funeral, when she can finally let her father know just how much she hates him. Zoe, the youngest sister, is the one who always seems lost and yet as she loses her struggle with AIDs, we see how much of the true heart of the family existed within her. But it is Billy, or Will as he becomes, who is a the core of this narrative. He is the middle son, the one who eventually succeeds in putting his father’s negativity behind him and comes out of the closet and into the arms of his true love.
And in the end, it all comes down to Jamal, Zoe’s illegitimate son whom she raised along with her best friend/mother substitute/love the fabulous drag queen Cassandra. Jamal, the tender, complex and beautiful boy who finds the decaying wing of a bird and sees the beauty. Jamal, whom all of the others either love with fierce possessiveness or despise, because their desire is too much, is the life that leads us to the end.
For me, the most touching relationship in the book was that formed between Mary and Cassandra. An unlikely friendship blossoms under Cassandra’s pushing, born from a desire to drag Mary into the life of her grandson, Jamal. Cassandra becomes not only a woman whom Mary admires but also a man she loves—they are almost doppelgangers and yet Cassandra is the one who teaches Mary more about how to love her children than anyone else could.
With graphic and yet beautiful sex scenes, incest and disease, this book does not tread lightly but it does leave a lasting impression, one of exquisite language and unforgettable characters. Ultimately, it is an honest examination of the modern American family. As readers, we see ourselves in the lives of the Stassos family and if we claim not to, then, perhaps, we’re not telling the truth.