For the subset of Generation X Americans too young to remember Watergate or Abscam, the Iran-Contra affair was the first major political scandal to come across their radar. There was a period of time in 1987 and 1988 when you couldn’t turn on a television set or open a magazine without seeing one of the familiar faces: Oliver North, Fawn Hall, Caspar Weinberger. After a while, it started to feel like, in a way, you knew them.
Of course, most of us didn’t know them at all; we just heard their testimonies, speculated on their innocence or guilt. It’s unlikely that many people gave much thought to what effect the scandal had on the families of the accused. But that’s precisely the focus of the excellent All the Houses, the new novel from Waterloo author Karen Olsson.
The book follows Helen Atherton, who has tried, and mostly failed, to make a career for herself in Hollywood. When her father, Timothy, suffers a heart attack, she flies to Washington, D.C., to live with him while he recovers. Helen has begun to consider writing about Iran-Contra, the affair that ended her father’s career in government, and she’s hoping to get her dad to open up about the scandal that stressed their family to an eventual breaking point.
It’s not easy. Timothy, who worked for the National Security Council when the arms sales occurred, is reluctant to discuss it. He and his then-wife tried in vain to shield their three daughters from the news when the scandal broke; of course, it didn’t work. But Helen and her sisters still don’t know the whole story: “To this day I don’t know whether to think of him as a coconspirator or a complicit bystander or just someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Helen thinks.
Helen isn’t just forced to deal with her reticent father. Her older sister, Courtney, also lives in Washington, and her younger sister, Maggie, visits occasionally from New York. Helen gets along with Maggie, but no so much with Courtney; the two have, at best, a tenuous relationship. When they all get together, the results are less than ideal: “The trouble with sisters is this: any time you have more than one of them, the configuration is highly unstable.”
All the Houses isn’t a straightforward narrative. The final third of the book goes back and forth in time, and the reader learns the backstory of the family’s slow collapse. Olsson never overplays her hand — while there’s plenty of emotional tension, she never succumbs to melodrama; every character is remarkably real.