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Onyx reviews: Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 9/20/2017

Most families probably wouldn't find it arduous to be confined to quarters for a seven-day period that includes Christmas. You stock up on food (or have it delivered if supplies run low), queue up some interesting programs on Netflix, bake and cook, play some board games, read the books that have been sidelined all year, and maybe even have some conversations. It all sounds rather delightful, like being stranded in a snowstorm with all the modern conveniences.

For the Birch family, it's an ordeal in claustrophobia. Sexagenarians Andrew and Emma, who have drifted apart, will have their adult daughters Olivia and Phoebe both home for the holidays, but no one seems to be looking forward to it. This is in part because Olivia is back from Liberia where she has been working with people afflicted with the Haag virus (think Ebola) and she is under a seven day voluntary quarantine. Which means the family must be quarantined, too. It's also in part due to the fact that the holidays will be spent at Weyfield Hall, Emma's spacious but drafty childhood home, which has seen better days and Emma steadfastly refuses any renovations. Andrew has never felt comfortable there and Olive is especially uncomfortable with its amenities after months of deprivation and squalor.

The biggest problem, though, is that almost everyone has at least one huge secret. Meet the Birches:

Emma, the matriarch. She sacrificed whatever career aspirations she might have had to raise their children and married beneath her station in the eyes of her parents. She recently received a worrying medical diagnosis and has decided to keep that news to herself until after the holidays. Only her best friend and a total stranger she met at the airport know. She believes it would cast a cloud over their festivities, and there's nothing anyone can do about it until the New Year anyway.

Andrew, the patriarch. A former war correspondent who covered Lebanon many decades ago. After the birth of their second daughter, Emma compelled him to give up his dangerous career. Since then, he's been writing snarky restaurant reviews. A one-night stand during his Lebanese days produced a son that he didn't know anything about until recently. He's uncertain how to respond to the young man's email or how to broach the news to his family, so he does nothing, hoping the issue will resolve on its own.

Olive, 32, the older daughter, a doctor. Though neither she nor her father would admit it, they are very much alike. She's adventurous and has a strong social and moral conscience that has taken her far afield over the years. While in Liberia, she broke protocols and had a physical relationship with another doctor, potentially exposing herself to the Haag virus. She isn't ready to tell her family about this burgeoning relationship, and is devastated when she learns that Sean has been infected with Haag.

Phoebe, 28, does something involving reality television. More than a little spoiled and rarely serious about much, she is her father's favorite, often joining him on his restaurant visits. She still lives with her parents, although she has recently gotten engaged to her long-time boyfriend, George, and is immersing herself in the world of wedding preparations.

Two other characters play a large part in the proceedings. First, there's George, the new fiancÚ. He comes from a good family, has a good education, but there's something not quite right in the relationship and the elder Birches aren't terribly happy he'll be their son-in-law, although they never voice this opinion. And then there's Jesse, Andrew's heretofore unknown son, a gay vegan documentary film maker who was raised in America. He's taken a huge gamble in going to Norfolk, England, hoping to meet his father without having any response to his appeals. Sean, carrying out a very public battle with a deadly illness, is off-screen for much of the book.

The story is both quaint and fraught with crises as secrets are deliberately or accidentally revealed. The book relies heavily on coincidence (what are the odds that Emma would meet Jesse at Heathrow while waiting to pick up Olive, or that Jesse would end up having drinks with George and his siblings at a pub?), and the characters all tend to be somewhat self-absorbed and judgmental. It plays out a bit like a farce, with people stumbling in at exactly the wrong moment to overhear something being said about them or, like Jesse, literally stumbling into the quarantine house thanks to a door being ajar.

It's a book mostly about rediscovering one's self and the other members of the nuclear family. Each of the Birches must acknowledge some hard truths about themselves and about the state of their relationships with each of the others in the family. It demonstrates the theory that with four people there are at least eight different relationships: each individual with each other individual, as well as parents to offspring and, for example, the strong bond between Andrew and Phoebe vs Emma and Olvia.

It takes a pressure cooker environment, where no one can flee except into the omnipresent social media gadgets, to force them to come to terms with each other and arrive at a new state of being. Best read during a blizzard, preferably with eggnog or some other tipple at hand and plenty of festive food and music.

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