The double-edged sword that is family.
About Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg: On the eve of her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s life is completely devastated when a shocking disaster takes the lives of her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, her ex-husband, and her boyfriend, Luke—her entire family, all gone in a moment. And June is the only survivor.
Alone and directionless, June drives across the country, away from her small Connecticut town. In her wake, a community emerges, weaving a beautiful and surprising web of connections through shared heartbreak.
From the couple running a motel on the Pacific Ocean where June eventually settles into a quiet half-life, to the wedding’s caterer whose bill has been forgotten, to Luke’s mother, the shattered outcast of the town—everyone touched by the tragedy is changed as truths about their near and far histories finally come to light.
My two cents
For most of the night I was awake, wondering at it all, the pattern that seemed to emerge where I laid every fluke and chance encounter, puzzling through all the possible signs and meanings; but any trace of a design disintegrated when I remembered the chaos and brutality of the world, the genocide and natural disasters, all the agony. I never felt so small, so humbled, by the vastness of universe and the fragility of life. - p. 113
With the synopsis pretty much giving away the entire storyline, I wasn't sure what to expect. But I was shocked when I fell hard for this phenomenal book that explores the themes of loss, grief and healing in a powerfully moving way.
This is a "wow" book for me not just this year but ever. All I could say on Goodreads after putting this down—with some regret that it was over—was "How amazing was that?" I was in a book-induced stupor for days! After partially recovering, I reread the entire thing and came away with an even greater appreciation of how amazing this book is.
Unique for this book its approach in storytelling. Told in multiple voices in third person, each chapter is a vignette of a character's backstory sprinkled with small revelations, like little puzzle pieces, that feed into the overall storyline. There were many characters, some that I felt came out of the woodwork, but all were essential as this book slowly peeled away the layers of people's facades. In the end, the bitter reality of what had led to the tragic explosion and its frighteningly horrific yet hopeful resolutions come into focus.
Slow character revelation had me empathizing with each of the characters, sometimes frighteningly so, as their thoughts, fears, insecurities and motivations were laid bare. Getting to know each one was a slow, even tedious process yet the emotional payoff was high for me. Overall, this is an emotional read and I felt there was a "nowness" and a tangibility in the atmosphere of each vignette.
Most of the characters lead sad and misunderstood lives. June is the main character since she is the sole survivor - middle-aged, divorced, and not quite sure where to go in her relationship with her younger boyfriend Luke. However other characters will win your heart too. Lydia, Luke's mother, described as a small-town Elizabeth Taylor who had more than her fair share of misery. Lydia's backstory is the stuff of small-town gossip, but I felt for her. Then there are the minor, yet surprisingly essential, characters like Silas, a teenage pothead who works for Luke; the bridal couple, Lolly and Will; and even the owner of the hotel where June seeks refuge.
Did You Ever Have a Family asks this rather pointed question and reveals that everyone eventually finds their own kin, whether because one is born into family or the family is formed by circumstance. All family relationships can be wrought with much joy and even greater sorrow and pain when relationships die or when there is loss. But this book captures a spark of hope and the promise of healing for those who choose to seek out others who can once again be called "family."
VerdictI was "wowed" by this complex, emotional, and highly nuanced story of tragedy which made me ponder the double-edge sword of family and family relationships. I highly recommend this for those who enjoy complex storytelling, intense characterizations, and are willing to be affected by a highly realistic story.
Endnotes: I later learned that this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for honest review consideration.