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.)