By Bill Clegg
Gallery/Scout Press (September 1, 2015)
Reviewed by Mary Vensel White
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” With this famous first line, Leo Tolstoy begins his classic novel Anna Karenina, a story about allegiances and relationships, social confines and aspirations, and the binds of family and home. These themes are also the purview in Bill Clegg’s wonderful debut novel, Did You Ever Have a Family, and his characters are no strangers to unhappiness in its many forms.
The narrative is centered around a horrific accident, a house fire that takes the lives of four people in a small Connecticut town. June Reid is divorced, fifty-two years of age, and known for the worldly flair she retains from her earlier life working in art galleries in London and New York. She is somewhat of an enigma to the locals and has become estranged from her grown daughter. After years alone, she has taken up with a much younger ex-con. And then the unspeakable happens: the night before her daughter’s wedding, June’s house explodes, killing the daughter and her fiancé, June’s ex-husband and her new boyfriend. The novel follows June as she tries to recover from this unspeakable loss.
For those who enjoy debating genre and form, arguments could be made for this novel as a linked story collection or a novel-in-stories. Each chapter is told from a different perspective, an approach that can be jolting and distancing but in this case, works very well. To tell only June’s story would have been exhausting and stifling, I think, because of the depth of her loss. The rotating voices bring us close to this unthinkable event but then allow us to pan out again, to see it from a less brutal vantage point. The local teenager who knows something about the fire, June’s boyfriend’s alienated mother, the owners of the small motel in Washington where June sequesters herself after the tragedy—these ancillary characters give perspective on what has happened but carry their own stories and secrets as well. If I had any criticism of the book, it would be that the voices didn’t always clearly distinguish themselves from each other. And I questioned, at times, the drama attached to each character. Sometimes, life’s defining moments are more subtle than what Clegg has imagined for many of these characters. But these complaints are small ones, brief notes on a novel with much, much more to admire.
One of the remarkable things about Did You Ever Have a Family is the pacing, the way Clegg holds interest in the narrative despite the fact that arguably, the main event happens straightaway. What pulls us along is the interplay between the widening circle of characters and the clues we gather about what has brought each one to this place, to this story. For those concerned about possible gloominess, I can tell you it’s not a relentlessly heavy and dark read. Certainly, the novel is about love and loss but at the forefront, at least for me, was the idea of family. Disappointments, chronic misunderstanding, rejections and yet, unconditional acceptance, comradery, the heights of joyful love—the myriad of familial associations are on display here. Families are formed by necessity, chance and choice. Clegg seems to be saying that ultimately, family is who and what you make of it. This unifying theme was a major strength of the novel and was fleshed out with each character. And yet the novel works almost as a mystery too, with turns and twists, clues and revelations.
This is a book that begs to be read again; immediately, I wanted to start over, searching for clues and resonances that perhaps I missed the first time around. In the end, I guess that’s about the best you can say about any novel.