Caught up? OK, here we go with brief reviews of two also-rans. These books are very different in tone, but have a lot of similarities: Both are about families and the communities they live in and both were bestsellers. There are many differences, though: One is by a first-time author and one by an old pro, one essentially a comedy and one so tragic it could be a comedy. Both are worth a read, but for different reasons.
Let’s start with Bill Clegg’s debut novel, “Did You Ever Have a Family.” This was long-listed for the prize, but didn’t make the short list. I don’t know why, I’ve only read the winner and another finalist, see below. But I will say that while this book has lots of strong elements, the result is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
On the morning of June Reid’s daughter’s wedding, something horrible happens: The bride-to-be and her fiancé, June’s ex-husband and her current, much younger, boyfriend are killed when June’s house blows up. June is outside, though it’s 5 a.m. and what was to be a celebration became, in the blink of an eye, a tragedy beyond belief, not just for June, but for the small Connecticut town where she lived.
The story is told by several people, some intimately affected by the tragedy and others not. We never hear from the dead, which I found comforting, though there is a hokey letter to June from her daughter that explains certain things. It ties things up in a bow that runs contrary to the carefully planned messiness of the rest of the book.
Though it feels like this is June’s story, it ends up being the story of Lydia, the town tramp (it’s never really clear if the title is earned or unearned), who is the mother of Luke, June’s new boyfriend. Lydia has made some bad choices in her days that led to a justified estrangement between her and Luke. Though June brokers a reestablishment of relations between Lydia and Luke, it is cut short by the accident. It’s hard not to want to slap Lydia, but we have all known people like her, so damaged by their upbringing, they can do nothing but screw up their own lives and those of the people in them. Still, she’s a pretty likable trainwreck.
What bothers me most about this book is that it purports to be life affirming—life can change in a second, so love and be loved—while it is so full of tragedy. Even the peripheral characters have rape, murder, suicide, drug addiction, cancer and bad marriages in their backstories. It’s a regular smorgasbord of catastrophes. To his credit, Clegg doesn’t dwell too much on the main tragedy, but on its aftermath. He’s more interested in how people go on, because go on we must.
In addition, Clegg’s writing isn’t terribly inspiring. Maybe that’s because he’s writing as everyday Joes in many cases. But in the chapters where he’s the narrator, he evokes the feeling you get when reading a high-schooler’s attempt at depth: All things we’ve read before.
It’s no accident that so many characters in the novel are people in the service industry, or who find value in serving others. To me, Clegg is saying that while we are here, our job is to take care of others, to help make others’ lives better and more fulfilling.
That’s a message worth hearing, even if it’s in a somewhat flawed package.
Next up, “A Spool of Blue Thread” by Anne Tyler, who’s been around a while. This is the 74-year-old’s 20th novel and, for better or for worse, you know what you’re getting when you open an Anne Tyler novel.
It’s not that nothing really happens in one of her books, it’s that she has a unique way of making readers care about the little that actually does happen. If someone asks you what the book is about, you can’t synopsize it, and you generally come up with something that is not worthy of the book.
For example, I’d sum up “Thread” like this: “It’s about this family and there’s a dad who’s kind of an oaf and a mom who’s a little too involved in her kids’ lives and they have these four grown children, each of whom is a unique type of mess. And the parents are getting older and this brings up long-simmering issues for the kids. But it’s also about their parents and their parents and…yeah.”
Of course, I probably wouldn’t say “long-simmering” but you get the jist.
“Thread” is the story of the Whitshank family, a family that somehow starts with the grandparents of the grown-up kids and goes back no further. Neither of these Whitshank grandparents—who are long dead by the time the novel starts—talks about their family situation so there are no stories to tie the current family to its past.
Tyler makes much of the fact that this family only has two “family lore” stories, and even those aren’t terribly interesting. But what lies beneath the surface, held tightly by individual family members, is a compelling story about love against all odds, about what we settle for and why, and what we tell ourselves about who we are.
There are three stories in the novel and Tyler starts with the present day family. She then goes back to the previous generation, when the parents meet and fall in love and back again to tell the story of the grandparents’ odd courtship.
What Tyler seems to be saying in this novel is that what happens in our every day life may not be the stories we pass on to our children, but they are what really matters and what we must pay attention to.
For those who enjoy writerly tricks, she gives a master class in relationships through a spat over a porch swing. She mines real suspense and meaning on how the beautifully made swing is to be finished.
It’s for those reasons that Tyler is so rewarding to read.