A quote from Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” may seem like a strange way to start a novel chronicling the struggles of a religious middle-class family. But by the time the characters in Gabrielle Zevin’s The Hole We’re In start hearing the pop star’s breakout hit on the radio, the symbolism has become obvious. Their stories both start out promising, and turn into a slow train wreck. Zevin’s second adult novel feels a world apart from her debut, Margarettown, a whimsical, bittersweet fairy tale about a man getting to know his future wife. The Hole We’re In stays grounded in grim reality.
While the recession may make the late ’90s seem like the good old days, they were bad for the Pomeroys, who wind up drowning in debt when the patriarch, Roger, goes back to school and leaves his wife, George, struggling to makes end meet while planning her eldest daughter’s wedding. They are mundane problems, but the characters’ ways of coping are so hideous that Zevin’s later attempts to garner sympathy for them fall short. Roger is a self-absorbed, racist, Christian fundamentalist hypocrite, and George’s methods of avoiding confessing to painful truths ruin her younger daughter’s life.
In fact, the most positive emotion that any of the main characters are able to garner is pity. While it’s set in red-state America, The Hole We’re In is unlikely to win any fans there. The small Tennessee town where the Pomeroys live is portrayed as depressingly small and small-minded, populated by people whose lives leave no meaningful impact on the world except to produce children doomed to follow in their footsteps. There are a few touching moments shared between characters trying to do the best they can amid bad circumstances, as they wonder how things would be different if they were born somewhere else.
The book jumps forward six years three times in the course of the narrative, leaping between 1999 and 2018. The technique is most effective as a means to show how age changes the characters and their relationships with each other and the world. But later sections don’t always resolve the problems left hanging at the end of their predecessors. For instance, Helen Pomeroy hates her fiancé and has more than $19,000 in credit-card debt in the first section, and is largely elided over in the second. But 12 years later, she seems to magically have a happy marriage and healthy finances.
For the most part, the narrative is intimate enough that the partial future setting doesn’t matter; the focus is solidly placed on the characters rather than the world around them. But in the last section, Zevin tacks on a prediction about the United States that’s both unnecessary and unlikely. Her attempt at relevant social commentary falls short, leaving The Hole We’re In just a mediocre work of fiction.