Monday, May 2, 2016

Book Review: "Happy Family" by Tracy Barone

Cheri Matzner's life is in a bit of turmoil. She and her filmmaker husband are barely speaking yet she's trying to have a baby, her job as a professor of comparative religions is in jeopardy (but all she really wants is a spot on a crew slated to head to Iraq to catalog and translate antiquities), and she's trying to keep her overbearing, functionally alcoholic mother from throwing her a 40th birthday party.

But Cheri is used to chaos in her life, as she has reinvented herself more times than she can count, from the suburban adolescent to the multiple-pierced, blue-haired teenager, from the slightly radical Yale student to the tough-as-nails cop entangled in a relationship with her partner. Part of her restlessness seems innate to her, but she'll admit some of her transformations have simply been ways of angering her adoptive parents—her well-meaning but emotionally distant father and her smothering, insecure mother. She's never really understood why her parents treated her the way they always have, but while she's tried to shrug it off for most of her life, they've affected her more than she cares to admit.

A series of professional and personal setbacks make Cheri question everything—her marriage, her maternal instincts, her career path, and her family. She reflects upon her life growing up as some sort of symbol to both of her parents (something different to each of them), and wonders how much of this is attributable to her adoption as an infant. But more than that, Cheri realizes that it can take a significant amount of time before you really understand your parents and yourself, and sometimes your lowest moments are what you need to really change your life.

Tracy Barone's Happy Family is an emotional and sometimes humorous book about how growing up in the midst of dysfunction can only prepare you for more dysfunction in adulthood. It's also a book about finding strength in difficult times, and how life has a way of surprising you, both positively and negatively. The description of the book led me to believe it would be more about Cheri's birth mother and the foster family that took her in when she was an infant, but their impact is felt only briefly at the start and end.

Barone is a tremendously talented writer, and I found myself so wrapped up in the plot of the book that I honestly didn't realize how good she was until I read a paragraph near the end of the book which made me gasp. I re-read that and then started noticing Barone's almost-poetic style in some places. Cheri is a fascinating, flawed character; this is her book, and some of the other characters paled in comparison to her. (Cheri's mother almost never transcended a stereotypical Italian immigrant, clinging fast to her old-school ways and customs despite being in the U.S. for many years.)

Happy Family is a sensitive and occasionally sexy portrait of a woman who always believed her life was more together than it actually is. If you've ever wondered whether why you are the way you are has more to do with your upbringing than your own choices, this is definitely a book you'll enjoy. Barone's writing ability is definitely worth taking notice of.

NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!