Saturday, September 5, 2015
Book Review: "Did You Ever Have a Family" by Bill Clegg
"I've learned that people will believe what they believe no matter what you say or do."
The night before June Reid's daughter is to get married, an unexpected tragedy takes the lives of her daughter and her fiancé, as well as June's ex-husband and her current boyfriend, Luke. Utterly unsure how to process a loss of this magnitude, she is emotionally overwhelmed, wracked with anger, sadness, and guilt. The only solution she sees to coping with those around her who feel the need to pass judgment on the situation and assign blame, even if they don't know the truth, is to run, as far away and as fast as she can.
As June follows a path across the country that her daughter once took, from Connecticut across the country, to an oceanside motel in tiny Moclips, Washington. Along the way she reflects on her rocky relationship with her daughter, and finally finding love again, with a much younger man, and the issues that arose from both relationships. Hers is a stoic grief, but one that threatens to consume her, little by little.
While June mourns, we get other glimpses of what led up to the tragedy, the people involved, and the aftermath. Portions of the story are narrated by Lydia, the town outcast and Luke's mother, who has secrets and regrets of her own; Silas, the teenage stoner who knows more about the tragedy than he has told anyone; the two women who own the motel where June settles in to mourn; and others with peripheral involvement in one way or another. Some of what is told is more gossip than anything, a slightly bitter version of Liane Moriarty's Greek chorus in Big Little Lies, but much of what is told is like participating in an archaeological dig, where an artifact (or the truth) is uncovered, little by little.
This is a book of tragedy and hope, of optimism and bitterness, and one of the strength of relationships of all kinds. Things start out vaguely murky, and it takes a little while to make sense of all of the voices and where the story really is. But once the plot starts to pick up steam, and connections and truths are revealed, at times you feel this story deep in your gut. Just like real life, it is amazing how life hinges on split-second decisions we make, and how the things we don't say sometimes can be more destructive than the things we do.
I had never read anything Clegg had written before, but there is a lyricism to his storytelling as well as a tremendous amount of emotion evoked by his words. This is a sad book, and it's not entirely satisfying, but I can't get it out of my mind.