The family that sticks together
By Aileen Torres
Survival of the fittest becomes a cruel joke in A Taxonomy of Barnacles, Galt Niederhoffers debut novel, which takes its name from Charles Darwins less famous, more tedious work on the evolution of parasites best known for living on ship hulls, whale bellies and rocks.
Despite the un-sexy book title, theres a lot of salacious plotting in this literary yet light romantic comedy about a family of six sisters with two eccentric parents, Barry and Bella. The couple is divorced yet still lives in conjoined apartments on the Upper East Side, a situation that is a result of Bellas insistence on being near her girls, ranging in age from 10 to 29. Oddly enough, Mom may be close by, but her proximity doesnt translate to much intimacy with any of her children.
The real star in this (former) couple winning out by sheer, exuberant weirdness is dad. Though not exactly a warm and fuzzy kind of guy hes more the type who inspires fear and awe for his brilliance and inexplicable behavior Barry doesnt care how he looks and doesnt give a damn about social conventions. Hes a rebel determined to fight social conformity wherever he sees injustice. And he sees these wrongs just about everywhere that individualism and eccentricity are frowned upon, particularly in the expensive schools his children attend. He may have sent them there, but he has no qualms telling off the administrators who disqualify one of his daughters from a talent show because they deem her dance out of place among the other kids offerings.
Having grown up the son of immigrants, Barry worshipped at the altar of hard work, climbing his way up the ladder of entrepreneurial success to become New Yorks Pantyhose Prince. He changed his name from Baranski to Barnacle, then catapulted from Brooklyns Brighton Beach to Manhattans garment district, where he quickly made his fortune and proceeded, at a tumble, to the Upper East Side, where he provided his daughters all the comforts and niceties he lacked as a child.
This generosity, however, has a down side, as Barry grows increasingly anxious about his childrens disregard for getting ahead through diligence and laments that they have grown soft from his coddling. So he gets Bella to invite them over for Passover seder in order to announce a contest that he hopes will spur them to earn their keep. The challenge? One of them must become pregnant with a male heir to carry on the family name. Whoever accomplishes this task first will inherit Barrys entire fortune.
This little ploy of his naturally leads to a lot of madcap, romantic adventuresmostly mishapsparticularly in the lives of the eldest girls, Bell, 29, and Bridget, 25. Bell returns home in a slump; shes an emotional wreck who has no job and cant seem to hold one for very long. To top it off, shes pregnant, but has slept around so much she doesnt know who the father is. She also happens to still be in love with one of the twin boys in the Finch family who grew up next door to the Barnacles. But she doesnt give a damn about her fathers contest.
Bridget, however, does. The most extroverted of the siblings, shes arguably more together than Bell. Shes considered the prettiest of the bunch, and very aware of it, too, and she already has a boyfriend of three years, the tortured artist, Trot, with whom she shares an apartment in the Village. But Bridgets real love is closer to homethe other half of the twins next door. Theyve been flirting for years and have a running joke of making marriage proposals to each other. Considering Barrys contest, the whole act has much more serious implications.
Taking pages from her own book
As for the idea behind Barrys little scheme, The contest is an intentional homage to Pride and Prejudice, said Niederhoffer, 30. The potential consequence of spinsterhood was poverty.
Like the Barnacle girls, Niederhoffer grew up on the Upper East Side with a very strange father. My father would show up to Parents Day at my proper, all-girls school wearing two different shoes, bright red pants, and shirts buttoned to the wrong hole, she said. Her teenage cringe reflex never really subsided through the years in fact, the opposite happened. And yet, my father is my idol, the person I admire most in the world. This book is my attempt to integrate mortification and admiration.
Niederhoffer conceived of the book during her return to Harvard a few years ago to finish her undergraduate degree after having dropped out earlier to start a film production company, Plum Pictures, while still in her early twenties. She was taking classes in English literature and evolutionary theory and saw interesting similarities between science and literature during the Victorian Era. Channeling Austen, one of her favorite writers, I wanted to write a kind of update, referring to where fiction and feminism are now, while still telling a new and hopefully entertaining story.
Austen and Darwin broke ground in fiction and science almost simultaneously. On the Origin of Species defined the Victorian era, bringing questions of family to light. The struggle between nature and nurture seemed like the ultimate metaphor for a story about a family, not to mention a family at war. And, of course, Darwins question, nature or nurture, perplexes, guides and muddles us just as much today.
Taxonomy isnt destined for the bookshelf alone. Niederhoffer has sold the film rights to a studio, so the cinematic version will be underway soon.