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Seven Days of Us


Seven Days of Us

Heading home for Christmas might be an annual ritual for many, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a welcome one, as anyone who’s ever viewed spending a few days cloistered with loved ones with a mix of anticipation and trepidation knows. Yet a week together is exactly what the Birch family is going to get in SEVEN DAYS OF US, a witty and fun tale of a family that might just be more dysfunctional than yours.

The premise of Francesca Hornak’s fiction debut --- which arrives just in time for the holiday season ---  is either nightmarish or cozy, depending on your feelings about your relatives. Olivia, the eldest Birch daughter, is a doctor just returned from Liberia, where she’s been treating victims of a deadly, Ebola-like outbreak. Subject to a mandatory seven-day quarantine, she’ll be waiting out the week between Christmas and New Year’s with her doting mother, distant father and spoiled younger sister at their isolated house in the English countryside.

"SEVEN DAYS OF US doesn’t lack for twists, but Hornak also has a keen understanding of family dynamics, which gives the story emotional heft."

It’s the first Yuletide that the semi-estranged Birch family is spending together in years, a situation tailor-made for conflict. Mix in a few skeletons in the closet, and it’s clear that a week in close confines will force every member of this quirky clan to reevaluate their relationships with each other. The accumulated revelations, which include a hidden illness, a secret child and a cheating fiancé, are piled on with a heavy hand, giving the story a touch of the soap opera. But Hornak, who capably juggles the book’s multiple perspectives, uses them as effective fuel for plenty of tense (and at times amusing) dinner table scenes.

All this drama unfolds in a setting that’s catnip to Anglophones. Being well off and English, the Birches naturally own a country estate, to which they retreat for their unwilling sequestration. Weyfield Hall is more of a moldering pile than a luxury retreat, though. There are hints of faded charm, but the rooms are drafty, the ancient stove is uncooperative, the hot water is unreliable, and the front door refuses to close properly --- a detail that will prove important when an unexpected guest arrives.

SEVEN DAYS OF US doesn’t lack for twists, but Hornak also has a keen understanding of family dynamics, which gives the story emotional heft. Matriarch Emma is desperate to create “one more Christmas, just the four of us,” while privately wondering why her family no longer seems to understand each other. Andrew, a war correspondent turned sharp-tongued restaurant critic (one unfortunate dish is dismissed as “flap of briny irrelevance”), hides his emotions behind a veneer of snark, which has poisoned his relationships with his wife and eldest child. Flighty, fun-loving Phoebe is quietly pondering questions about her future, while Olivia is both maddeningly self-righteous and understandably frustrated by her family’s insular privilege.

Into this messy tableau lands Jesse, a thirty-something American adoptee on a quest to reconnect with his birth father, Andrew. When he shows up on the doorstep, the relentlessly cheerful foreigner forces a reckoning within the Birch family. Will this new addition to the clan --- who’s fallen in love from afar with Weyfield’s “roaring fires, family portraits, and dark paneling” --- find what he’s looking for in England? Will Phoebe and Olivia forgive their father’s indiscretion? Will Emma and Andrew be able to repair their broken relationship?

Francesca Hornak provides answers to all those questions and more, though the narrative strains a bit when it moves from the country back to London and the Birches are faced with one last crisis --- one they’ll only be able to cope with together. Without family, Hornak reminds us, we’d all be alone, forced to stare down life’s disasters on our own. And that might be the one thing worse than being stuck with each other.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on October 20, 2017

Seven Days of Us
by Francesca Hornak

  • Publication Date: October 16, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley
  • ISBN-10: 0451488768
  • ISBN-13: 9780451488763