Lily King’s last novel, The English Teacher, was widely acclaimed and ended up on a number of “best of the year” lists, including the one put together by Publisher’s Weekly. Her debut, The Pleasing Hour, received similar treatment. It’s natural to suspect, then, that her third novel, Father Of The Rain, might be a bit of a disappointment, a comedown from two marvelously observed slices of life. Instead, it’s somehow even better, creating an intimate epic that spans three decades in tracing the evolution of a daughter’s relationship with her father.
King’s central character is Daley, who begins the book as an 11-year-old girl forced to avoid telling her father that her mother will be leaving him in a few days’ time, taking Daley with her. Daley’s mother isn’t perfect—she tends to get too wrapped up in her own causes—but her father is something else altogether, an angry drunk who seems like the life of the party to all his closest friends and neighbors. Though Daley lives with her mother, the novel is far more interested in tracing how she navigates the treacherous emotional terrain of being in her father’s house post-divorce.
The story of a father who’s unable to express his love and the daughter who loves him anyway isn’t exactly the freshest idea in the world of literary fiction, and the alcoholism issue is even more familiar. King makes that basic framework her own by piling on terrifically chosen details and closely observed moments that suggest who these people are without coming right out and stating every bit of subtext. Daley and her father are perfectly drawn characters, but King lavishes just as much attention on people who only appear in one or two scenes, or who flit around the edges of the novel, like Daley’s brother. Her generosity toward her characters turns her book from literary cliché into a specific take on an old, old story.
The finest section of Father Of The Rain is probably its long midsection, when Daley decides to put most of her young-adult life on the line to help her father overcome his alcoholism and crippling depression. Daley makes choices that will absolutely infuriate readers, but King is always careful to delineate exactly why she’s doing what she’s doing, and making sure we see both sides of her and her father, so neither becomes too virtuous or too monstrous. This section features some of the finest evocations in recent memory of an adult’s attempt to return to a childhood home, and King’s eye for ways to tell a whole story in a matter of words is at its most acute.
Father Of The Rain has some flaws—chief among them are long, self-indulgent scenes where Daley and her academic friends talk ponderously of academic things—but it keeps its eye so firmly pinned on its central two characters that it rarely strays far from what makes it compelling. The end of the novel somehow finds a way to put a button on the stories of both characters that’s both true to the narrative and optimistic, creating a sense of readers having lived this life and gone on this journey. It’s been a strong year for fiction, but Father Of The Rain is possibly 2010’s best American novel so far.