Flight by Lynn Steger Strong review – tensions at the Christmas table

<span>Photograph: Vespasian/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Vespasian/Alamy

The Christmas novel may be big business for publishers of commercial fiction but it has a place on literary lists, too, from that schmaltzy ur-text A Christmas Carol to Jonathan Franzen’s pathos-heavy The Corrections and Claire Keegan’s knockout Small Things Like These.

With her third novel, Flight, Lynn Steger Strong makes her own quiet contribution, in which she questions that cornerstone of secular yuletide celebrations: collectivity. Consoling and unsettling in equal measure, it opens as three grown children converge for their first festive get-together since their mother Helen’s death. She was traditionally the one who corralled everyone, smoothing over tensions, making sure the annual photograph got taken, smiles fixed in place.

Add enforced cheer, choreographed feasting and stifling expectations and you’ve a combustible combination

This year, middle child Henry is hosting with his wife, Alice, at their rambling place in upstate New York. He’s an artist – as was Alice until a string of miscarriages made her turn to social work instead. Their guests are big brother Martin, with his abrasive wife, Tess, a lawyer, and stay-at-home mother Kate, the baby of the family whose husband, Josh, is mocked for his trust fund. Both couples have kids in tow.

Add enforced cheer, choreographed feasting and stifling expectations – not to mention the swirl of memories that it all triggers – and you’ve a combustible combination, lightly evoked by Strong as she flits between viewpoints.

She adds to the mix a lousy investment, an inappropriate flirtation, and tensions over what is to be done with Helen’s house in Florida – so far, so middle class. But it’s a different storyline that sets Flight soaring.

Alice is a caseworker to a young single mum, Quinn, who knows that if she slips up just once more, she’ll lose custody of her bookish daughter, Maddie. So when Quinn calls to say that Maddie is missing, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

It’s the drama the others need to make them pull together, and Strong uses this less fortunate family unit to school her characters in their own privilege. When at last they all sit down around a laden dining table, the feeling of togetherness is genuine, albeit haunted by a caveat that recurs throughout this understated, insightful novel: “for now”.

  • Flight by Lynn Steger Strong is published by Scribner (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply