book review: Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

The backstory: Did You Ever Have a Family is on the 2015 Booker Prize longlist. Update: it was also longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award.

The basics: On the night before her daughter Lolly's wedding, June Reid's Connecticut home bursts into flames, killing four people. Lolly and her fiance, June's ex-husband, and June's boyfriend Luke.

My thoughts: Despite not loving Bill Clegg's memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, I did appreciate the quality of his writing, and I was curious to see how his first novel would fare. When it made the Booker Prize longlist, I admit to being surprised. The premise sounds grim and depressing, yet this novel manages to veer towards hope rather than wallow. This shift in tone stems from Clegg's wise choices in timing. It isn't told in a strictly linear way. Most of the focus of the novel is after, but not immediately after. This emotional distance helps the novel feel more redemptive without ignoring the horror of such a loss.

I read Did You Ever Have a Family in a day. I often read novels with multiple narrators quickly, as each switch in narration brings something new and interesting. Clegg has a particular gift for succinct characterization:
"What she saw that Lolly was something she never imagined her to be: an artist. Maybe not a great one--if great could even be designated with empirical accuracy--but someone with an artistic soul who needed to abstract what puzzled her to find the answers." 
Did You Ever Have a Family is ostensibly a mystery, as the narrative is driven by questions: what started the fire? Why was June outside? But as I read, I was less interested in these questions than I was in the questions of after: how will June feel whole again? What does it mean for life to go on? Clegg made me care about these people. The novel is filled with expected narrators and unexpected ones. I delighted in seeing the expected and unexpected ways in which they were connected. Literature is a great connector in my life, and I love escaping into novels that explore the connections of lives.

Favorite passages: "I've never been one to go to church, but I've always believed in a creative intelligence behind the ongoing riddle of the world."

"The world's magic sneaks up on your in secret, settles next to you when you have your head turned."

The verdict: There's a timeless, classical sense to Did You Ever Have a Family. There aren't many markers tying it to a specific time. As I read, it reminded me of the experience of reading Oprah's early book club picks in the 1990's. Did You Ever Have a Family fits in with the themes that tied those disparate books together. It's tragic but redemptive. It offers insight into the ways a wide variety of people think. It explores the lines between social classes. This novel isn't perfect, but I couldn't put it down. It made me feel and it made me think, and what more can I ask novels to do?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: September 1, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Did You Ever have a Family from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

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  1. I loved that this book was so much more than a mystery about who/what started the fire. I was so impressed by the characters and they way Clegg tackled issues like race and class.

  2. Excellent review! I'm already on the library hold list.


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