‘Love Orange’, Suburban Mediocrity Meets Opioids and Smart Homes

Love Orange, hailed as a ‘vivid comic cocktail about a modern American family,’ is translator Natasha Randall’s debut novel. The book chronicles the lives of the Tinkley family: a traditional, all-American, white, Christian suburban family living in a stereotypical cul-de-sac in the town of Bentonville. Parents Jenny and Hank relocate from the city with their two young sons: twelve-year-old Jesse and eight-year-old Luke in 2014 into an Arts and Crafts home. A year later, Hank has converted their suburban dwelling into a smart home. Thus, the home starts to feel like a strange tool of surveillance; it knows when there’s no milk in the fridge, when the microwave’s timer has finished, and stores up to ten days worth of footage from all but two rooms: the bathroom and the basement. The house, simply called ‘Home’, sometimes feels like a peculiar fifth member of the family – always there and aware, much to Jenny’s dismay, but never a full participant in the Tinkley’s family affairs.

Jenny, feeling trapped in in the constructions that are motherhood and marriage, and with her new smart home watching her every move, enters a prisoner pen-pal programme and strikes up a correspondence with John, a man serving time for manslaughter. Eventually, Jenny becomes the middleman between John and his wife Shona, who is also incarcerated, and starts to develop a curious infatuation with the orange glue that seals his letters. This growing obsession starts to consume Jenny, and proves to be much more dangerous than she could have imagined.

“A tenderness, an unnecessary kindness, developed through their exchange. The convict and the housewife, the rough and the smooth – each with its own damnation. It was something about the thunder and lightning of his life, and the marshmallow numbness of her own.”

Love Orange by Natasha Randall.

I immediately took to Luke, the Tinkley’s youngest son. Both Jenny and Hank regard him as a little peculiar, and find his behaviour somewhat concerning, though Hank more does so more openly, with Jenny often defending him. He’s fascinated with the beginnings of things, and keeps an impressive archive of objects in the home’s basement, the one place Hank hasn’t made ‘smart’. He’s incredibly intelligent and pretty straightforward, and his parents wonder if he’s perhaps autistic – though his therapist doesn’t seem to think so – and I find Luke to be one of the few likeable characters. Conversely, I feel the opposite about his father.

Simply put, Hank rubs me the wrong way, though I think it’s safe to say that this is intentional. He’s clearly white American, hegemonic masculinity personified: a straight, white man who at one point seriously questions if partakes in or even benefits from the patriarchy. In the same breath, he’s dedicated to turning his boys into men, steering them away from things deemed too feminine. They’re male, and so they are destined to be strong, to be providers, and engage in activities like camping. After all, ‘males were built for violence.’ When Hank finds lipstick, really whale blubber, among Luke’s impressive basement archive, he despairingly wonders if Luke is ‘preparing to turn ‘trans’ or something.’ On the other hand, Hank performs yoga every Saturday morning religiously. He does his breathing and water rituals, corralling his wife and sons into the practice also. He’s a little ‘New Age’ like this, and he repeatedly ponders the difficulties of being a man, confessing his desire to be free, though from what isn’t made too clear. One can suppose it’s the bonds of masculinity, of silent expectations placed upon him as the father, the husband, the ‘man of the house’, and the breadwinner – Hank owns his own business while Jenny works part-time as a receptionist. Thus, it’s safe to say that both Hank and Jenny are feeling trapped for different, though still similar, reasons.

Love Orange is a delicate and simple read, with Randall opting for a matter-of-fact style of writing. Overall, I was a little underwhelmed. Love Orange didn’t resonate with, and hasn’t stuck with me in the ways I initially I expected it to. The Tinkley’s are such a middle-class, white suburban family that I found them painfully unrelatable and perhaps a little uninteresting as a result, except Luke. Additionally, at times it felt as though Randall’s writing was a little scattered. When Jenny is in the throes of her obsession with the unique orange glue, Randall very briefly slips into first-person writing on occasion, and this made for a somewhat confusing read. That said, the ending isn’t wholesome and that’s something I can really appreciate – it’s a little different, and not what anyone would want in their hearts, but it makes for an interesting, semi-thought-provoking read.

Randall really does a fantastic job at encompassing themes of masculinity, technological advances, the medicalisation of children, and opioid addiction through the life of Jenny Tinkley, a mother and wife trapped in suburban mediocrity. And though I didn’t love Love Orange, I’m curious to see what other work she has up her sleeve.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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