The Position, By Meg Wolitzer, Scribner, 320 pp., $24
The premise of ''The Position" seems rich with sitcom potential. In 1975, suburban parents Roz and Paul Mellow achieve overnight fame with the publication of their very graphically illustrated sex manual, ''Pleasuring: One Couple's Journey to Fulfillment," causing their four mortified children to grow up in the shadow of their notoriety. But while savagely witty in spots, there is nothing funny about this book. Rather, in Meg Wolitzer's hands, ''The Position" is a seething but ultimately accepting portrait of a family.
The story opens with Michael, 13 and the second-eldest child, discovering the book on a high shelf in the family room. It closes 30 years later, when Roz and Paul (both long since divorced and remarried) tape a talk show together -- the opening salvo in a major public relations campaign for the newly reissued book -- then have a reunion dinner with some of their children. Between these bookends, Wolitzer skillfully traverses time and perspectives, alighting long enough on each family member to illuminate how each is stuck but how almost all manage to move on in spite of themselves.
Though handsome and accomplished, Michael (now 40) is drifting away from his latest loveless relationship and suffers from bouts of depression and sexual dysfunction caused by the medication he takes to treat it.
Holly, his older sister, was the first to flee their beautiful mother, idolizing father, and the embarrassment they created. After years of aimlessness and drug abuse, Holly is now moored on the West Coast, so physically and emotionally estranged that she is defined primarily by her absence. Dashiell retreated inward as a child, and then came out in the early 1990s -- to the sorrow and chagrin of his family, who could handle his sexual orientation but not his politics -- as a Log Cabin Republican. Now he is struggling with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma but is still solidly resistant to his family's desire to draw near or to help in any way. Claudia, still the baby in her early 30s, is looking for purpose and coming to grips with the realization that ''their parents were so powerful and they, the children, were always the children, so much that they carried a banner of childhood with them their entire lives. Their fully sexual parents kept them from growing up completely."
But Roz and Paul felt no more or less powerful than any other parents in relation to their children. They sang songs, took the kids out for ice cream, attended the same parent-teacher conferences as their Long Island peers, whose naked, sexually entwined bodies never appeared on the pages of a top-10 bestseller and whose words were never broadcast beyond a circle of family and friends. Their marriage was fueled by the same lust, impatience, desire to possess or break free, the same melange of comfort and middle-of-the-night estrangement as their married neighbors'.
This chronicle of the not-so-Mellow children's coming to terms with their parents is not marked by climactic moments of forgiveness. They have no epiphanies, just eroding defenses and the sneaky surprise of reaching the age their parents were when they were the center of the children's lives. But happily for them and for the readers, that's the stuff reconciliations are made of.