The patriarch of the novel, Barry Barnacle, is the self-made New York Pantyhose Prince and, to boot, a devotee of Charles Darwin. Barry is so dedicated to Darwin, in fact, that he changes his family name, Baranski, to Barnacle in honor of Darwin's fascination with the species. Darwin spent 20 years dissecting barnacles in his basement before publishing The Origin of Species. Then, inexplicably, he featured the finch instead. (As a side note, the Finch family lives next door to the Barnacles in their Upper East Side apartment building).
In keeping with Darwin's theory (and drawing from the plot of King Lear), Barry challenges his daughters to a competition.
He assembles the six girls at a Passover Seder (along with his current wife, his first wife, his first wife's adopted son, and the Finch twins from next door - a configuration reminiscent of The Royal Tenenbaums). "Competition," he tells the group, "is evolution's greatest force." This is why, he continues, he has designed the contest. "Whoever can figure out a way to immortalize the Barnacle name will be named the sole beneficiary of my estate." He gives them exactly one week.
Each of the six daughters accepts this challenge according to her unique personality. Unfortunately, six personalities are way too many for a reader to keep track of. Not to mention that each of the girls' names begins with the letter B. In the prologue, as way of introduction, Niederhoffer writes: "Benita, age ten, was a natural athlete; Beryl, thirteen, had a musical ear; Belinda, sixteen, could transform hand-me-downs into a stylish outfit; Beth, nineteen, was a science nerd; Bridget, twenty-five, boasted the best looks; and Bell, twenty-nine, though competent at many things, at the moment could not remember a single one at which she was particularly good." A chart would definitely be helpful.
Fortunately, Niederhoffer focuses much of the novel on the two oldest girls, Bridget and Bell. These two have maintained love affairs with the next-door twins, Billy and Blaine Finch, since they were teenagers - even though Bridget has a live-in boyfriend, Trot (thank God his name doesn't start with a B), and Bell is pregnant and doesn't know who the father is, thanks to a string of depression-inspired drinking blackouts.
To make matters more confusing, the identical twins are identifiable only by the opposing Yankees and Red Sox baseball hats that they wear. Billy and Blaine compete not just for the eldest Barnacle girls' hands in marriage, but for their rivaling baseball teams and against each other in cutthroat tennis matches. (Billy has a killer overhead smash, but Blaine an equal and opposing backhand.) And in a chapter called "Double Vision," Niederhoffer indulges in a series of identity mix-ups that can only result in a groan.
The upswing of the novel is the gorgeous tour Niederhoffer gives us of New York City. The Barnacles' apartment looks out over Central Park, which is featured in many scenes. (It's hard not to think of the novel as a film - which would, in fact, make it easier to keep track of the characters.) J.D. Salinger's Glass family, another eccentric group of child prodigies, inhabits this same territory. Niederhoffer nods to Salinger in a reference to The Catcher in the Rye: Bridget and Billy pause on 72nd Street, near the Boat Pond, "pondering Holden's question: where on earth did the ducks go during the winter months?"
A Taxonomy of Barnacles offers a rollicking, though out-of-control, ride through the life of the Barnacle family, chock-full of salutes to great moments in literature, film, philosophy and baseball.
The plethora of characters, though, and their competing points of view dilute the story, preventing A Taxonomy of Barnacles from being as great as any of its influences.
Ashley Simpson Shires is a freelance writer from Boulder.