Friday, June 5, 2015
Book Review: "Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed" by James Bailey
"I'm thirty-two and I'm barely responsible for myself. I spend all my disposable income on cigarettes and beer."
C.J. Neubauer isn't exactly living the dream. A writer who can't seem to get his big break, he works in a coffee shop while mostly living off his sort-of girlfriend, with whom he has a relationship which is more antagonistic than anything else. After college, he fled across the country to get away from his family, and apart from sporadic visits home (which never quite seem to go very well), he rarely speaks to his parents or his siblings.
Needless to say, it's a little surprising when late one night C.J. gets a call from his father, who seems more interested in his life than he has been recently. Even more surprisingly, his father ends the call by saying, "I love you," and it so catches C.J. off guard that he figures he'll reciprocate when he's home for his older brother's wedding in a few months. But the next morning, C.J. finds out that his father committed suicide, leaving a note that read, "Sorry I wasn't what you needed," although no one is quite sure to whom the note was directed.
So C.J. heads home sooner than he expected, and he isn't home long before nearly everyone is ready to kill him, and the old resentments and wounds quickly surface. As he and his siblings try to figure out what might have prompted their father to take his own life, they each fall into familiar behavioral patterns. But having been out of the familial loop, C.J. is surprised to see how much his mother's drinking has increased, and how troubled her relationship has become with her second husband.
"He wasn't the kind of man you appreciate when you have the chance," C.J.'s mother said of his father. And C.J. realizes that there was far more to his father than he realized: he touched more lives, felt more deeply, and cared more about his children than C.J. knew. As he tries to figure out what to do with his life, he can't decide whether going home to his combative relationship is more palatable than staying near his family.
While comparisons to Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You are inevitable, Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed is a different book and it deserves to stand on its own. While James Bailey certainly treads into Tropper-esque territory, there is more poignancy than humor in this book (although the characters do have some zany shenanigans), and this is a family with more than its share of flaws and issues. The characters aren't necessarily likable but you can see how many of them wound up the way they are, and C.J. is so messed up I kept forgetting he was only 32.
I always love books about family dynamics if for no other reason than they help me keep the craziness of my own family in perspective. But while Bailey's book might not break any new ground, Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed is a well-told, compelling look at the way family ties can sometimes pull and sometimes comfort.