Tag Archives: family drama


Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg is definitely one of the It Books of the fall. I picked it at BEA last May and decided to give it a read when all the reviews started coming out. In the end, I liked it, but didn’t love it as much as others have.

June Reid is a middle-aged woman living in a Connecticut town. The night before her daughter Lolly’s wedding, her house burns down in a fire, killing Lolly, Lolly’s fiance, June’s ex-husband and her much younger boyfriend Luke, all of whom were asleep in the house. Did You Ever Have A Family picks up after the funerals. June gets in her car and simply drives away, leaving the charred carcass of her home and the memories of her family.

What makes the book interesting is that it is told from the perspective of about a dozen characters, including June, Luke’s mother, a teenager living next door, the caterer of the wedding, and the people who work at the motel in Washington State where June eventually ends up. Through these perspectives, Clegg unfolds June’s story and eventually reveals what happened the night the house burned down. Long-held tensions and secrets are addressed as the reader begins to understand these complex characters who are carrying around regret and shame.

Clegg’s writing is very good and I enjoyed the slow teasing out of the story. There is a lot of pain in Did You Ever Have A Family, and it’s really a profoundly sad story. (What a shock, I know.) But there is some hope at the end – perhaps too much, as it felt a little saccharine and contrived after such a realistic journey to get there.

The shifting perspectives showed narrative mastery on Clegg’s part, but slowed me down a little as it made the book harder to get really immersed in. I ultimately had a hard time feeling emotionally connected to any of them, which made me feel remote from the tragedy. That said, I really liked Lydia, Luke’s mother, and looked forward the most to her chapters.

Overall, I liked Did You Ever Have A Family and recommend it for fans of fairly depressing family dramas. (Like me.)

SMALL MERCIES by Eddie Joyce

Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce is a family drama told from alternating perspectives about the Amendolas, a family from Staten Island. The book takes place over one pivotal week in the lives of Gail (the mother), Michael (the father), Peter (one son), Franky (another son), and Tina (the daughter-in-law), who was married to a third son, Bobby, who is now dead. Bobby was a firefighter  killed in one of the towers on 9/11, and the book takes place ten years later.

When this debut novel opens, Gail is preparing for her grandson Bobby Jr.’s birthday party, which she is hosting at her house. Tina then breaks the news to her that she has been seeing someone, and that she’d like to bring him to the party. This stirs up a lot of emotions for Gail, who is still grieving the loss of her son and feels that Tina’s finding a new boyfriend is a betrayal of her son’s memory. Tina’s news is also the narrative excuse for Joyce to explore how the rest of the family is coping with losing Bobby. The narration goes back and forth between the present day and points in the past, so the reader gets a complete story of each character and how they got to where they were.

I liked Small Mercies quite a bit. I enjoyed the setting – Staten Island, a borough that has always been a bit of a mystery to me – and Joyce’s ability to bring it to  life through his characters. I thought Joyce did a great job getting into their heads and exposing their grief not only about losing Bobby, but for some, about how their lives turned out. They’re all flawed, and have done things they aren’t proud of, but Joyce at least explains why and provides each character’s perspective.

Joyce covers a lot of ground here: 9/11, of course, but also corporate law firms, high school sports, March Madness, the pressure to do what your father did, and the changes modern times have brought to a traditional Italian neighborhood across the river from Manhattan. Joyce is a clean, detailed writer and Small Mercies flowed easily. Despite its subject matter, it is not a heavy or difficult read at all.

I mostly listened to Small Mercies on audio, and the narration by Scott Aiello was excellent. His Staten Island accent was very good (at least I assume so), and he really brought the characters to life. There is quite a range of characters here – men, women, older, younger – and Aiello really distinguished them well and infused each one with his or her own tone, breathiness and pacing. Overall it was a very good audiobook that enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

If you like modern American family sagas told from multiple perspectives, then Small Mercies is probably right for you. I look forward to reading more from Eddie Joyce.

THE ARRIVALS by Meg Mitchell Moore

The Arrivals, Meg Mitchell Moore’s debut novel, is a quiet book without a lot of drama or action, but a satisfying one nevertheless. The Arrivals is about the summer when sixtysomethings Ginny and William find that their three adult children, Lillian, Stephen and Rachel, have all converged on their serene Vermont home. Lillian is escaping her troubled marriage, with her three year-old daughter and infant son in tow; Stephen came for a quick weekend with his pregnant wife, but complications have put her on bedrest, trapped in the house; and Rachel is adrfit in New York City after a breakup.

I liked The Arrivals. It’s about family relationships and the changing dynamics that are introduced when children become adults and grandchildren and spouses enter the picture. It’s also about unconditional love from parents to children, and how that love can be tested and reaffirmed over time. Again, this isn’t a dramatic book; I read some complaints on Goodreads that not much actually happens. That’s true, but it didn’t bother me. The book was more about the smaller moments – almost vignettes – that make up a summer shared by too many people in the same small space. It was very realistic.

I liked this quote from the almost-end of the book:

[Lillian] recognized that they were all battling – all of them, everyone in the family – to have their needs met. Ginny, William, Rachel, Stephen, Jane, all of them. Even little Philip. Clashing, every day, primal forces pitted against one another.

In a lot of ways, that’s what big family gatherings can be – battles to get individual needs met, and the corresponding disappointments and resentments when they are not.

I am impressed that The Arrivals is Meg Mitchell Moore’s first novel. Her writing is assured and smooth, and the book flowed nicely. I recommend this one to fans of domestic fiction – it’s an easy but satisfying read.

FTC disclaimer: this was one of my purchases from The Strand, bought with my own cash.