Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

51kgOTJWNXL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Little Fires Everywhere

by Celeste Ng

Shaker Heights, the setting of Celeste Ng’s latest novel, is a neighborhood in Cleveland.  It’s one of those planned neighborhoods in which everything is ordered and uniform, from the style and colors of the houses to lawn maintenance, to the seemingly perfect, successful, high achieving families that occupy them.  The fact that garbage cans are hidden out of sight down hidden driveways and retrieved by special trucks on trash day is symbolic of the perfect appearance that belies the unsavory truths of reality.

Central in the story are the Richardson family, long-time residents of Shaker Heights, and Mia Warren, a single mother, and her teenage daughter, Pearl, newly arrived and renting one-half of a duplex in Shaker Heights from the Richardsons.  The Richardsons embody everything Shaker Heights believes it collectively stands for: progressive values and living by the rules.  Mia’s and Pearl’s arrival upends everything.

Having lived a bohemian existence up to this point, Mia, a photographer whose artistic whims have kept her and her daughter constantly on the move, is finally ready to settle down and give Pearl some permanence.  The four Richardson children quickly absorb Pearl into their family, while also being drawn to Mia – she’s like nobody they’ve ever known.  Mia takes a part-time job cooking and cleaning house for the Richardson family and becomes privy to the family’s chaos hiding just below the veneer of their perfection.

When long-time friends of the Richardsons begin the adoption process of a Chinese infant abandoned at the local fire station, Mia takes steps that sets off a custody battle that divides the seemingly idyllic town, and suddenly the veneer of perfection and progressiveness begins to crumble.  While Elena Richardson (who is always referred to in the novel as Mrs. Richardson, while Mia is always referred to by her first name, a tactic used by the author that underscores class differences as well as establishing which character is more relatable) is consumed by her righteous indignation over the injustice her friend is being subjected to because of the custody dispute, and busy going to great lengths to uncover Mia’s mysterious past, her four teenage children are involved in all kinds of unsavory high drama, to which she is oblivious.

And it all culminates in the opening scene of the book: the Richardson’s beautiful, perfect home engulfed in flames.  The title of the book refers not only to the manner in which the Richardson home was set aflame (the fire department found multiple points of origin, “little fires everywhere”), but the drama, trauma, and imperfection of reality that playing by the rules cannot prevent.

I liked this book a lot, although I found some of it to be a little far-fetched (like, for instance, the fact that when you get right down to it, Mia, this somewhat free-spirited, well-traveled single mother in her mid-thirties, is a virgin; and that when Pearl is asked to give up the friendships she has nurtured in Shaker Heights and the first experience of stability she’s ever had, she puts up very little fight).  In spite of the unlikeliness of some aspects of the story, it’s a fast-paced, engrossing rumination on motherhood, class, race, and the fact that perfection is always an illusion.

Sing, Unburied,​ Sing by Jesmyn Ward

515pYTNTrcL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Sing, Unburied, Sing

by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing revolves around a poor black family living on their backwoods farm in modern day Mississippi.  Although the story is told from multiple points of view, Jojo, a 13-year old boy, is at the center.  Jojo lives with his grandparents, whom he adores, his emotionally and often physically unavailable, drug-addicted mother, and his three-year-old sister, of whom he is fiercely protective and devoted to.  Jojo’s grandfather is a hardened man with a lifetime of grief and bitterness behind him, and yet, his devotion to his family and almost reluctant tenderness toward them is evident.  Jojo’s grandmother is bedridden in a darkened bedroom, dying of cancer.  Leonie, Jojo’s mother, is haunted by her grief over her brother who was shot by white men when he was a shining football player in high school, and she spends most of her time in a meth-induced haze.  Jojo’s white grandparents live nearby, but they have never acknowledged their black grandchildren.  Although they serve as background characters, their anger is a formidable presence in the story.

Much of the story revolves around a harrowing car trip to retrieve Jojo’s white father from prison.  Jojo doesn’t want to go, but he and his toddler sister are made to go by their mother Leonie, who has grandiose visions of making a fresh start once Michael is released from prison.  She is aware of her sins towards her children and her parents, and envisions righting old wrongs and becoming a cohesive family – but in acts of constant self-sabotage, the fresh start is doomed from the beginning.  Leonie is too far gone with meth, and even Michael, who just spent several years in prison for manufacturing and selling meth, gets high and falls right back into old behavior the moment he is released from prison. The entire trip, which spans two or three days, is steeped in high tension during which Leonie, her girlfriend who has come along on the trip, and Michael seeth in a drug-induced stupor, and Jojo and his small sister Kayla cower in the back seat.  Kayla is so often mistreated by her parents that you just want to cry.

Featuring large in the story are the ghosts of Leonie’s dead brother, Given, and a 13-year old boy who was in prison with Pop, Leonie’s father and Jojo’s beloved grandfather, many years ago.  These specters appear to Leonie and her son, and both haunt them and comfort them.  They are the unburied, singing their songs of the past.

There is no redemption in this story.  It is full of sadness, grief, and anger.  There is great relief when Jojo and Kayla reach home again in one piece, but they are already broken, and the reader is left with little hope for their future, for although they have the love and devotion of the grandfather who is raising them, there is no escape from the poverty, racism, and parental neglect and abuse that are central features of their young lives.

It’s a heavy story that stays with you.

A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White Jr.

8069878A. Lincoln

by Ronald C. White Jr.

For years I’ve wanted to read a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and I recently finally got around to it.  There are so many that have been written, it’s difficult to choose which one to read.  I ended up going with Ronald White’s biography, mainly because it was rated well, and it was the most recently written one I came across.  Having now read it, I wonder if I would have appreciated a different one more.

That is not to say this is not well-written and informative; it is.  However, what I had been hoping for was something that demystified that man, Abraham Lincoln.  And while this biography does that to an extent, it is far more an exploration and recounting of the Civil War than an analysis of Lincoln himself.  That said, it is an exhaustively researched volume, and I did come away having learned more about the Civil War than I ever knew before.

Some interesting things to note about Lincoln: according to this biography, at the outset of the Civil War – and indeed, of his political career –  he was not determined to abolish slavery.  While he was not in favor of slavery from a personal, moral perspective, his goal was only to stop the spread of slavery into territory beyond which it already existed.  He was fine with leaving slavery alone where it already existed, and at the outset of the Civil War, his focus was on keeping the Union together.  His views on slavery seem to have evolved over time (with the aid of pressure from anti-slavery factions in the North), and endeavoring to completeley abolish slavery came after a long process of rumination on Lincoln’s part.  Even when he first began to propose the abolishment of slavery, he made clear that he did not believe that Blacks were the social equals of Whites, and he proposed “emancipation and colonization,” meaning, arranging for freed slaves to be relocated to Haiti and Nigeria.

Perhaps his views on the social equality of Blacks also evolved, however, as indicated by his (final) encounter with Frederick Douglass at the White House for Lincoln’s second inaugural reception, where Lincoln warmly received Douglass, saying, “Here comes my friend Douglass …. there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”  It is impossible, however, to know how far this would translate, practically speaking, had Lincoln not soon thereafter been assasinated.  Would he have championed Black suffrage?  Equal pay for Blacks?  Blacks holding political office?  Interracial relations and marriages?  It’s impossible to know this, but given the widely-held views of that time period, it’s unlikely that Lincoln would have been enthusiatic to that extend, no matter how progressive he was for the times.

It’s worth knowing, too, that the lines that divided the North and the South did not dilineate sentiments about racial equality to the extent I think we would like to believe.  Most Northerners at that time were deeply prejudice, and although many were against the institution of slavery, they still viewed black people as an inferior race, and wanted little or nothing to do with them.

I also found it interesting to learn of Lincoln’s supposed spiritual oddyssey.  As a young man, and even by the time he first assumes the office of the President, he seemed to be verging on agnostic.  Over the course of his presidency, however, he apparently underwent some kind of spiritual transformation and became almost pious in his views on god and providence.

In any case, White’s biography of Lincoln does offer a lot of fascinating information about Lincoln’s life, as well as the Civil War, and the generals and other important figures of the time.  A bit on the dry side, and with a little too much comparative analysis with the bible for my taste, it’s nonetheless an informative volume.  I’m not sure, however, that I feel that I understand Lincoln the man much better than I did before reading this book.  But maybe Lincoln will always remain somewhat of an enigma, and understanding the workings of his mind is an impossiblity.

Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat by Patricia Williams

UnknownRabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat

by Patricia Williams (with Jeannine Amber)

I did not read as many books in 2017 as I aimed for, but I did read more books than I wrote about here.  Life is so full and busy these days, both reading and blogging have fallen somewhat by the wayside.  I’m hoping to give both a bit more attention in 2018.

The first book I’ve finished in this new year is Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat by Patricia Williams.  I’ll be honest and confess that I am completely unfamiliar with Patricia Williams – never heard of her before this book was chosen by my book club – although she is apparently a well-known comedian.  Truth be told, I’m not exactly up on the whole comedian circuit in any case.

In some ways, Rabbit tells a familiar story of a deprived, dysfunctional childhood full of abuse, neglect, and downright shocking circumstances and incidents (there’s a whole subgenre of these memoirs; see The Glass Castle, The Liar’s Club, All Over But the Shoutin’, Running With Scissors, and even Fun Home).  What sets Williams’s story apart, though, is that while most (all?) of the other such memoirs out there are the stories of white people, hers is the story of being black and female growing up in the ‘hood.  And being black and female is a whole other ball of wax.

One of five children of a down-and-out, alcoholic, single mother who spent the first several years of her life living in her grandfather’s “liquor house,” Patricia, dubbed “Rabbit” by one of her mother’s boyfriends, was instructed by her mother in the vocation of pickpocketing the drunks who passed out in the house daily by the time she was eight.  Always without money, love, or guidance, and often without enough to eat or gas, electricity, or hot running water, she was pregnant by age 13 (I have 13-year-old twin daughters, and being faced with the reality that 13-year-old girls in the world get pregnant and have babies elicits a visceral response in me) by a 20-year-old married man, and had two babies by age 15.   With virtually no frame of reference as to how to navigate her life other than the criminals and addicts she had always been surrounded by, she turned to dealing crack to support herself and her children – and was very successful at it.  Over the years, she was shot twice, arrested, and beaten – just to list a few things.

And yet, she tells her story with an immense wise-cracking humor.  This isn’t a book that asks its readers to feel sorry for its subject.  Ms. Williams does not seem to have a victim mentality, despite the horrific things she’s lived through.  She lays it all out in a matter-of-fact way, without portraying herself as saintly, or even sinless, and tells it all with a wit that obviously comes naturally to her.

The fact that she ends up becoming a successful comedian and getting her memoir published tells you that she turns her life around and gets out of the ‘hood, but it’s worth reading how her resilience and unfailing sense of humor get her there.  It’s also an eye-opening look into what it means to grow up black, female, and poor in America.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone_with_the_Wind_coverGone With the Wind

by Margaret Mitchell

So many thoughts … where to start?

I just read this epic Civil War novel for the third time in my life.  The first time I read it, I was a mere teenager.  My mother would park herself on the sofa every year when the movie was on TV and cry her way through it (if my memory serves me), and by the time I was a teen, I had seen the movie numerous times because of this.  Being an avid reader, of course I read the book when I arrived at a certain age.  In truth, though, I don’t have any memories of how the book made me feel all those years ago – I only remember that I liked it very much.

The second time I read it was almost ten years ago when it was chosen for my book club.  Apparently I never wrote about it – I’ve searched – but I did give it five stars on Goodreads.  I had hoped that I had written about it so that I could go back and compare and contrast my feelings about it then with my feelings about it now, but alas, no such luck.  I do clearly remember loving it, appreciating all the details about the Civil War it contains, feeling a strong admiration for the character of Scarlett O’Hara (my goodness, that character – or at least her name – was the inspiration for my youngest child’s name!), feeling deeply invested in the story and the people who populated it, and wanting to go back to page one and read it all over again as soon as I finished it (I didn’t do that, though; it took almost ten years before I would reread it).

And now I am well into middle age and have read it for the third time.

Over the last few years, as I’ve become more aware of and invested in social justice issues, I’ve come across articles that mention Gone With the Wind as a monument to racism.  The first time I came across an article like this, my knee-jerk internal response was defensiveness.  How could one of my favorite novels be racist?  I’m not racist!  I understand how wrong racism is!  It’s just a fictional story about a time and a place that no longer exists.  That’s just the way things were back then.

You get the idea.  The usual white-person thought process in the face of uncomfortable truths about racism and prejudice.

So, when I picked it up (actually, I listened to the audio book; for the record, the reader did an excellent job) this last time, I knew that I would see it through a different lens than I did a decade ago.  Here are my main thoughts:

First and foremost, GWTW absolutely does romanticize slavery.  It portrays the owning of human beings as property as a mutually beneficial institution, in which slave owners took good care of their “darkies” much like pets or small children.  They fed them generously, nursed them in sickness, and generally appreciated their service like anyone today might appreciate the service of a paid, voluntary service provider.  If an occasional “lick” was meted out, it was for the negro’s own good – but violence against slaves was exceedingly rare.  And the slaves not only accepted their lot of being owned by other human beings, they were happy about it!  They did not pine for freedom.  They gladly accepted that they were put on this earth solely to serve their white folks.  Any stories coming from the Yankees about whipping slaves or sending bloodhounds after runaway slaves or any mistreatment of negroes was propaganda.  So, when the slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, it was a cruelty not only to the genteel Southerners, but the slaves themselves, who never wanted freedom in the first place, and couldn’t cope with it once they had it.

Well, that’s all propaganda if I ever heard it.  I did a lot of eye rolling, jaw-dropping, and cringing through all of that.  I felt ashamed that I had ever read this book before and not seen this, not given it much thought at all.

Speaking of Yankees, they are the bad guys in this story.  Yankees are horrible, murderous, unscrupulous blights.  Even after the war, the Yankees remain The Enemy.  And I’m sure there is actually a lot of truth in this.  As I read, I kept wondering when the South began to see the North as fellow Americans again.

Also, the Ku Klux Klan features prominently in this novel, and it’s portrayed as a necessary organization in the face of Reconstruction in order to preserve the Southern way of life.  Members of the KKK are upstanding, respectable, honorable noble men – they are the good guys.

I know, right?

Two characters in the story, Ellen O’Hara (Scarlett’s mother) and Melanie Hamilton-Wilks (Scarlett’s sister-in-law, and the wife of the man Scarlett pines for) are portrayed as near saints.  “Truly Great Ladies” they are called – meaning selfless, humble, kind, compassionate, gentle, forgiving, and utterly virtuous. However, they are both utterly devoted to “The Cause”: preserving the Southern way of life with its class hierarchy (of which they are at the top), and the institution of slavery.  Gentle, self-effacing Melanie frets that she doesn’t want her child going to school with “pickaninnies.”  So, really, how virtuous and saintly can someone be who has a bone-deep belief that owning other human beings and depriving them of liberty is the way things are supposed to be?

Now let us turn to Scarlett O’Hara.  What I mostly remembered from having read the book before (and seeing the movie countless times) is that I admired her mainly for her bucking a lot of the conventions women of her time were expected to uphold.  She spoke her mind at a time when women were expected to shut up and let the men do the talking – and thinking.  She was resilient, a fighter – she single-handedly pulled her family out of poverty after the war.  She went out in public while pregnant – a shocking and appalling thing to do at that time.  She owned a business – and a man’s business at that (a mill and lumber yard) – and ran it, and was good at it, at a time when women were expected to stay home and darn socks.  This admiration still holds.  In those ways, I do still feel that she is a heroine of a kind.

However, Scarlett O’Hara is a bitch.  She is jealous and petty and spiteful and 69234d55c356d4ae6f7ffbee80a7b9faself-absorbed and conceited, and often just plain mean.  She steps on people and doesn’t care who she hurts in order to get what she wants.  By the end of the novel, which spans twelve years, she has burned nearly every bridge she ever had.  She’s not actually a very likable person.  I’m left wondering how Margaret Mitchell wanted her readers to feel about Scarlett.  Did she intentionally create a character we aren’t supposed to like – was Scarlett meant to serve as a cautionary figure?  Or was Scarlett meant to be an admirable heroine?  Are we supposed to root for her or disdain her? Perhaps both.

As far as the love story – gah.  Scarlett spends the entire twelve years of the novel believing herself in love with Ashley Wilks, who is somebody else’s husband, as well as a pitiful, helpless, inept daydreamer of a man who leads Scarlett on by occasionally making proclamations of love for her in private, and on one occasion shoving his tongue down her throat (which she welcomed).  In reality, he really just longs to fuck Scarlett, but he’s too honorable to actually cheat on his wife.  Finally, at the end of the novel, Scarlett realizes that she never really loved Ashley (and she realizes that he only wanted into her bloomers), that she actually has loved Rhett for years without realizing it.

Rhett Butler is the bad-boy that women are believed to like so much.  He doesn’t give a crap about convention, he makes piles of money by unscrupulous means, and of course he’s tall, dark, and handsome.  And he’s in love with Scarlett from the first time he sets eyes upon her sixteen-year-old self when he is in his thirties (more on the prevalent lechery in the novel below).  Eventually, Rhett becomes Scarlett’s third husband, but he marries her knowing she’s in love with Ashley, but then ends up filled with resentment towards her for being in (fake) love with Ashley.  The relationship between Rhett and Scarlett is very fucked up once they get married.  They can never, ever, ever be vulnerable with each other.  Rhett plays very hard at not letting Scarlett know he actually loves her – and then resents her for not realizing that he loves her.  They communicate mostly with barbs and sarcasm.  Violence erupts between them occasionally.  All in all, it’s a very unhealthy coupling.  Funny that it’s often touted as “The Greatest Love Story Of All Time.”  They end up destroying each other because they can never be real with each other until it’s too late.

So, back to the lechery.  It’s plentiful in this story.  Scarlett’s mother Ellen was only fifteen when she married Gerald O’Hara, who was in his forties.  Scarlett is sixteen when the novel opens, and Rhett is thirty-three and falls in love with her.  Sue Ellen, Scarlett’s younger sister, is engaged to a middle-aged man (whom Scarlett woos away from her sister and marries for his money, but I digress).  It’s pretty gross and disturbing when you get right down to it.  Also, the incest thing.  Ashley and Melanie are first cousins and married.  Ellen, Scarlett’s mother, was in love with her own cousin, Phillipe, before she married Gerald.  I guess that sort of thing was accepted and common back in the day – but so was slavery.

All this being said, I confess I still enjoyed the book.  A lot.  From a purely literary standpoint, it’s a masterpiece – the writing is stellar, the characters and scenes come alive, it’s full of historical detail, and in all its nearly 1,000 pages, the story never drags.  I feel guilty about liking it because it’s so problematic in so many ways.  I also realize that I enjoy it specifically because I can only read it through the lens of a white person; I can’t imagine appreciating anything about it as a black person.  Racism persists, and the fact that white people have written stories glorifying such a heinous, miserable institution as slavery and portraying people of color as barely human, and the fact that white people (like myself) still enjoy these stories nonetheless is evidence of that.

 

Not Always Happy by Kari Wagner-Peck

51sHRGqjqXL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Not Always Happy

by Kari Wagner-Peck

I stopped reading memoirs about raising a child with Down syndrome awhile back mainly, I think, because they all started seeming the same. Most follow a fairly predictable trajectory: a child is born with Down syndrome, there is much grief, then acceptance, and finally celebration. It’s not that there is anything wrong with this storyline (which, if I’m honest, fits my own storyline with regard to having my own child with Down syndrome), it’s just that after a time, I had read enough of them. So when I saw mention of Not Always Happy – probably on Facebook, I can’t really remember for sure – and that it was funny, my interest was piqued.

Continue reading here.

The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal

51Upscve4gL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_The Heart

by Maylis Kerangal

I know, I know, it’s been forever since I’ve written a book review.  I haven’t stopped reading, it’s just the writing that’s been hard to carve out time for.  That said, I had to come and tell you about this book, because I can’t get it out of my head.

When I moved with my family up to the Pacific Northwest early this year, I started a new book club (because I can’t imagine life without a book club).  I chose The Heart as our book for August, having stumbled across a synopsis of it somewhere – I can’t even remember where.  I was intrigued because the title leads one to believe it’s a romance novel (of which I am not a fan), but the synopsis made clear that it’s as far from romance as you can get.  Or rather, it’s not the sort of romance most romance novels are about.  This is no saccharine love story about boy meets girl – no.  This is a love story of a different kind: a love story about the human heart – the actual muscle and tissue and blood version of the human heart – and its ability and sheer power to give and sustain life.

The novel opens in the early dawn hours on the shores of a beach somewhere in France as three boys, barely adults, tumble out of a van, don wetsuits, and head out to the sea with surfboards under their arms.  On their way home a couple of hours later, exhausted from surfing, the young man driving falls asleep at the wheel.  Two of the boys survive the ensuing collision, but nineteen-year-old Simon Limbres is pronounced brain-dead at the hospital, having been thrown through the windshield of the van head first upon impact with the pole.

Yet, his heart still beats.

The story takes place over a mere twenty-four hour period, which stretches out into eternity as Simon’s family is notified, and terrible decisions must be made.  Simon is dead, but his body still has the ability to give life to other people in desperate need of organ transplants.  And time is of the essence.

The Heart reads with the grace and fluidity of a ballet.  Gorgeous prose, taut and intense, every word purposeful and deliberate.  Every person in the story, from Simon himself, to his parents, to the doctors and nurses involved in the procedures that take place, is presented with his or her own story, background, thoughts, emotions, and observations, so that we understand the absolute human element in the extraordinary events that take place.  This is a beautiful, haunting story written with astonishing clarity and reverence for life, for death, and for grief.

This book is going to stay with me for a very long time.

Still Reading

Have you ever read a book that affected you so profoundly that you just couldn’t shake it for days and days and weeks, even?  Have you ever read a book that transported you so completely that when you were done, you felt sorrow at the realization that the story wasn’t real?  Have you ever read a book whose characters you became so emotionally invested in and attached to that finishing the book felt almost like a death (and if any of those characters died before the story was over, it shook you to your core?)?

That book for me is Lonesome Dove.  I recently finished it for the third time (however, this time I listened to the audio version, which wasn’t quite as good as reading it myself), and immediately after finishing it, I spent the next several days watching the 1989 miniseries.  Although the miniseries left quite a bit of the book out, and changed numerous things, it’s still, in my view, one of the best miniseries ever made, and one of the best film adaptations of a book ever produced.  I fell in love with Robert Duvall as Gus McCrae, and watching him in this movie still makes me weak in the knees, and his death still leaves me ugly crying.

So, although it’s been two months since I last wrote here, I have still been reading (or listening, as the case may be), but writing has gone on the back burner because, well, life.  I hope to come back here and share my thoughts about a couple of other books soon.

In the meantime, tell me what books you’ve read that have affected you deeply.

The Trespasser by Tana French

The Trespasser

by Tana French

In this latest installment by Tana French, Det. Antoinette Conway and her partner, Det. Stephen Moran of the Dublin Murder Squad take center stage.  Handed what on its surface appears to be a textbook domestic abuse-turned-murder case to deal with, Det. Conway and Det. Moran quickly realize that all is not as it appears.  Battling sexism in the squad adds to the complexity of trying to solve a murder case.  Gathering evidence and interviewing parties with different connections to the murder victim lead Conway and Moran on what ends up being a wild goose chase – possibly intentionally.  In the end, who killed Aislinn Murray and why threatens to blow the Dublin Murder Squad apart.

I’ve been a devoted reader of Tana French since her first novel, In the Woods, was published a few years back.  Some of her novels I’ve liked more than others (the above-mentioned In the Woods, as well as The Likeness and Faithful Place, stand out).  The Trespasser is a superb whodunnit, but I was put off by Det. Antoinette Conway’s character.  She’s written as a little too tough-as-nails to be believable or likable.  While I appreciate French’s representation of sexism in the workplace, Conway feels like a bit of an overcompensation – an over-the-top cisgender, heterosexual anti-female.  I was also put off by Conway’s use of “retard” and “fucktard” in the story.  Come on, Ms. French.  Do we really have to continue to use slurs against marginalized people in an effort to be edgy?

Worth reading if you like police procedurals/murder mysteries, but with caveats.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Did You Ever Have a Family

by Bill Clegg

I heard about this book when it was first released last year, but put off buying it because I knew that the premise was a tragedy.  I’ve recently started a new book club in my new neighborhood, though, and decided to choose this book as our first book.

The premise of Did You Ever Have a Family is indeed a tragedy: a catastrophic house fire kills four people the night before a wedding.  The victims are the bride-to-be and her fiance, her father, and her mother’s boyfriend.  June, the bride’s mother, is the only survivor.  After the funerals, June flees without a word to anyone, setting out on a cross-country trip in an effort to outrun her grief.  She ends up on the opposite coast, holed up in a little seaside motel that her deceased daughter once stayed at.

In the wake of the horrors of the house fire, the stories of numerous other people emerge – June’s boyfriend’s mother, the florist who was supposed to provide the wedding flowers, Silas, a local teen who can only be described as a hoodlum, the couple who own the motel at which June takes refuge, and various other people whose lives intersect in various ways.

Ultimately, this is a story about family, but also about profound loss and grief, and the formidable effort of surviving all of those things.

I appreciated this story, but it wasn’t the tear-jerker I thought it would be.  I found it difficult to connect with any of the characters.  I wanted to feel sympathy for June, the main character, but she’s somewhat of an enigma, a little cold and a little distant, which made it hard for me to feel much for her.

Still, it’s a well-written, nuanced story that I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading.