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Thursday, August 9, 2018

All Happy Families: A Memoir


At Book Expo this year I only had a couple of books on my list that I desperately wanted, so it opened me up to exploring what new works were coming out that interested me. I happened upon Jeanne McCulloch's memoir All Happy Families and was wowed. 

The weekend of Jeanne’s wedding — her mother’s day which she says they will get through with grace even if it kiss them — her father suffers a massive stroke after her mother’s insistence that he be sober for the wedding after decades of alcohol. As he lays in the hospital, Jeanne says her vows to her husband. Her father never wakes. The decision to move ahead with the bwedding reverberates throughout the lives of everyone, including her in-laws. As Tolstoy says, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This book wasn’t initially on my list to grab at Book Expo, but it sounded interesting so I thought, why not? After picking it up and reading it closely, I thought it would be a great read right away, and was I ever right. McCulloch’s story is, from start to finish, devastatingly beautiful. From her incredibly wealthy family (she can see Park Avenue from her penthouse growing up) to her down-home in-laws who lovingly call her “city girl,” McCulloch’s world in the 1980’s comes alive on the page through those she knows best. Her loving portraits of her father and her mother, as well as her beloved mother-in-law, are more than kind. They are deep, full-bodied, and show the level of care that she feels toward each of these guides in her life. 

I was both horrified and intrigued that the wedding went on as scheduled. I couldn’t even imagine being in a place in my life where it would be more socially acceptable to continue on than to hold. There is a scene where her mother phones the hospital and tells the doctor on call that if anything happens to her husband that night to not call the house — they are having a party. That is so beyond my realm of understanding that it fascinated me. The show must go on, especially when appearances matter. 

The second and third parts of the book are equally unpredictable yet make sense. It’s almost as if this is a perfectly plotted work of fiction, but as we know, the truth is in fact stranger than fiction. The narrative arc is so perfect that it’s almost unbelievable. Jeanne’s in-laws have the perfect marriage while her own parents were wonderful old birds. No one would have guessed that her in-laws marriage would fall apart so spectacularly. How true Tolstoy’s quote is; it turns out that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, and you never know what that unhappiness looks like behind closed doors. 

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