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.

After You by Jojo Moyes

635797385026424731-Cover.After-You.9780525426592After You

by Jojo Moyes

In this follow-up to Moyes’s Me Before You, we catch up with Louisa Clark, who had fallen in love with Will Traynor, a quadriplegic whom she was hired to care for.  Will has been dead for eighteen months now, having ended his life at a Swiss clinic for assisted suicide.  Upon his death, Will left Lou a chunk of money, instructing her to go make something of her life.

“You’re going to feel uncomfortable in your new world for a bit. But I hope you feel a bit exhilarated too. Live boldly. Push yourself. Don’t settle. Just live well. Just live. Love, Will.”

She has spent that money traveling, living in Paris for a while (a place that she had dearly wanted to visit with Will), and ultimately returning to England and buying a modest flat.  Louisa is floundering.  Will’s gift to her has not made her feel like she is able to make a fresh start; rather, she is working a dead-end job in an airport bar, and is still mired in grief over Will.

When Louisa is involved in a terrible accident herself that nearly takes her life, she s forced to confront her own mental state.  During her convalescence, she joins a “moving on circle,” a support group for people grieving the loss of a loved one.  Through this group, a new love interest enters her life (actually, her accident was her first encounter with him) – and this is pretty predictable.  I mean, of course the sequel to Me Before You was going to see Louisa falling in love again, right?  Predictable as it may be, it’s still poignant and relatable – especially to anyone who has loved and lost and found that life does go on (which I have).  In any case, Moyes handles this new relationship pretty expertly, with plenty of realistic fumbling, holding back, and fear of getting involved with anyone new – in other words, messiness.

To complicate matters, a strange teenage girls shows up on Lou’s doorstep one evening, out of the blue.  The girl turns out to be Will’s daughter – a daughter he never knew he had before he died.  Lilly is in trouble, too, and of course Louisa takes her under her wing, at great personal cost, but ultimately Lilly’s existence is perhaps the greatest gift from Will.

While After You doesn’t pack the emotional punch of Me Before You, it’s tender and funny, and a perfect sequel.  I’ve grown quite fond of Louisa Clark, and would eagerly read yet another follow-up novel if Moyes is inclined to write one.



Ghostbelly by Elizabeth Heineman

GhostBelly_stroke_400px Ghostbelly: a memoir
by Elizabeth Heineman

Every once in a while, a book falls into my hands that rips my heart out a little, and keeps me awake at night.

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.” – Franz Kafka

Ghostbelly is one such book.

Elizabeth Heineman, or Lisa to her friends, has lived an unconventional life, making unconventional choices.  So, it’s not surprising to those who know her when she falls in love anew in her mid-forties and decides to get pregnant at the age of 45.  What might be surprising, however, is that she chooses to have a home birth, eschewing the barrage of unneccessary medical interventions routinely present in the medical model of maternity care and childbirth.  It is not a decision Lisa makes lightly; she agonizes over it, researches it, and ultimately chooses a home birth attended by a certified nurse midwife because Lisa believes in evidence-based practices, and nobody she consults with can offer her any concrete medical reason that she would not be a good candidate for an out-of-hospital birth.  Indeed, regardless of her “advanced age,” she’s extremely healthy and fit and is deemed “low risk” by the hospital midwives she sees through a good part of her pregnancy, as well as her family practice doctor.

After an easy, happy, uneventful pregnancy that continues past her due date, Lisa goes into labor one November evening in 2008.  Something goes terribly wrong during her labor, however, and her longed-for baby, nicknamed Thor, is stillborn.

What ensues is the story of a woman  whose love for the child she never saw draw breath is inseparable from the gut-wrenching grief she inhabits over her loss of Thor.  Making yet more unconventional choices, Lisa demands more than the half-hour allotted time with her dead baby’s body that the medical examiner’s arbitrary protocol allows; she and her partner, Glenn, instead spend six hours with Thor that first morning in the hospital, cradling him, lovingly examining him from head to toe, rocking him, singing to him, and talking to him – as loving parents do with their new babies.

“I see Thor.  I feel him.  I smell him.  They have handed him to me in a blanket, and he is heavy in my arms.  I rock him and smile at him and sing to him and kiss him and inhale him.

“Glenn watches me and cannot understand: I seem happy.

“He is right.  I am happy, because in this strange new life I have just begun, the life of the mother of a dead child, this is what counts as happiness: I have my baby, I am cradling him and talking to him, and they will not take him away in half an hour, and so I am happy.”


“This is what I want to do in those six hours.  To take that moment, in which Thor will not grow six hours older, and inhabit it fully.  To fully absorb Thor, because it will be our only chance.

“And because this is so important, other things can wait.  Like crying.  Like thinking about Thor’s absence.  I will have a lifetime to explore Thor’s absence, every inch of it; to acquaint all my senses with it, to inhabit it.  Any time we spend crying now, bewailing his death, will be time lost to things like singing to him, touching him, things we only have a few hours to do.  Thor’s absence will not last just a moment, not even a stretched-out moment.  It will occupy time.  First he will be dead a day, then a week, then a month, then a year.  I will have the rest of my life to explore it, and its exploration will require the rest of my life.  But the time to explore Thor’s absence is not now.  Now is the time to explore Thor’s presence.”

The next day, after an autopsy is performed, Lisa and Glenn visit the funeral home where Thor rests until his burial is carried out.  They are surprised when the funeral director talks about Thor as if he matters, as if he were a person, a real baby, and not just a corpse.  “Uncle Mike” as he becomes known to them, encourages them to visit Thor whenever they want, and even to take him home for visits, which they do.

Lisa, of course, agonizes over what went wrong after such a wonderful, low-risk pregnancy.  Why did Thor die?  She unflinchingly analyzes her choices and the events that led to Thor’s death.  While she came to believe that Thor might not have died had she planned a hospital birth rather than a home birth, she does not condemn home birth or midwifery care as one might expect after such a catastrophic loss; rather, she condemns the alienation and isolation of home birth midwives in the U.S.; if home birth and home birth midwives were not placed on the fringe by society and the medical community, if midwives were treated as colleagues and invited to collaborate with doctors, it is likely that situations like Lisa’s wouldn’t arise.

“I believe Thor is the statistic for unnecessary death in an out-of-hospital setting.

“I believe someone else’s child is the statistic for unnecessary death in a hospital setting.

“I believe that a single unnecessary death during home birth prompts calls for abolition of out-of-hospital midwifery.  I believe that hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths in hospitals prompt suggestions for voluntary reform.  I believe the difference lies in the imbalance of power between hospitals and midwives, not the comparative level of risk of home birth versus hospital care.”

Lisa contacted me a few months ago and asked me to read and review her book (I have to say, I am so incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to “meet” some wonderful authors this way; Theresa Shea and George Estreich also come to mind), and gave me a synopsis, so I knew going in what the gist of her memoir was.  To be honest, I was a little scared to read it; I expected it to be morbid and maybe even macabre.  It is decidedly neither morbid nor macabre, although it surely takes the reader out of a comfort zone.  On a personal level, this book moved me in so many ways: aside from sharing a name with the author, we share religious views, and I, too, chose home birth (three times) and gave birth to a baby at an advanced age (44).  I can’t help but feel a connection to Lisa and her story, though I’ve never lost a child.

Searingly honest, gripping, and articulately emotional, this is a story that needs to be told – and a story that needs to be read.

For more information about this author and her stunning memoir, check out ghostbelly.com.