Following the literary misstep that was The Lake House, I was in desperate need of a palate cleanser for my next read. However, I just signed the lease on an apartment, so I’m a bit hard-pressed for cash at the moment. Read: no new books. In an effort to pinch pennies, I headed back to my mother’s Kindle Library for a quick peruse. On it, I found a book I’ve had on my list for a while: Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, which was long-listed for both the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize (with the ultimate honors going to Between the World and Me and A Brief History of Seven Killings, respectively). These ringing endorsements from the literary community were enough to validate the book’s quality, and so I started it on the subway to work Friday morning. I finished it on Saturday evening—and yes, I may have stayed in to do so. It was that good, a veritable 294-page tour de force replete with taut prose and complicated characters—all of whom were both deeply flawed and surprisingly easy to empathize with.
Clegg’s novel begins on a summer’s day in Connecticut; in the type of town where New Yorkers spend their weekends and summers in stunning estates while the ‘townies’ who maintain their properties silently resent them. Silas, a character of the latter variety, sees a billowing cloud of smoke from outside his window. The smoke’s origin is immediately identified as the June Reid’s house. June Reid is a divorcee of the wealthy, beautiful, New York ilk, whose daughter, Lolly, was set to get married that morning. But no longer—Lolly, her husband-to-be, June’s new boyfriend, and the Father of the Bride—were all victims to the fire.
The book charts the aftermath of the tragedy over the course of a year from the perspective of about six different characters, all of whom are related in some way to the dearly departed. It could be a depressing book—and, at times, it is, but it’s not one you’ll sit around crying over. Instead, Clegg uses each of the characters as projections of a different philosophy on life. It’s emotionally evocative, but Clegg doesn’t discriminate—he manages to be devastating and heartwarming in the span of a single paragraph. There’s not much more to say about the book, as to fully describe it would take away from the delight that its uniqueness brings as it progresses, but I will say it’s the best book I’ve read so far this year (and I hit double digits in late January). Read this, you won’t regret it.
Oh, and, also? This is going make an incredible movie. Picturing Meryl Streep or Julianne Moore as June…would love to hear others’ casting thoughts upon completion!