Reviews provided by Syndetics
Kirkus Book Review
Hours before a wedding, a fire kills the bride, the groom, her father, and her mother's boyfriend. "When something like what happened at June Reid's that morning happens, you feel right away like the smallest, weakest person in the world. That nothing you do could possibly matter. That nothing matters. Which is why, when you stumble upon something you can do, you do it. So that's what I did." This is the florist speaking: she will put the daisies she picked for the wedding into more than a hundred funeral arrangements. Other characters, particularly the parents of the dead, will have a harder time figuring out what comes next. Junewho has lost not just everyone she loves, but her house, her clothes, and her passport as wellgets in a car and drives to the West Coast. Lydia Morey, whose handsome son, Luke, was June's much-younger boyfriend, is stuck in town dealing with small-minded gossip and speculation. Silas, a teenage pothead who was working at the house the day before the accident, slowly unpacks what he knows about the cause of the fatal blast. Literary agent and memoirist Clegg's (Ninety Days, 2013, etc.) debut novel moves restlessly among many different characters and locations, from the small town in Connecticut where the fire occurred to the motel in the Pacific Northwest where June lands, darting into the past then returning to the tragedy in its utter implacability. Yet the true subject of the book is consolation, the scraps of comfort people manage to find and share with one another, from a thermos of pea soup to a missing piece of information to the sound of the waves outside the Moonstone Motel. An attempt to map how the unbearable is borne, elegantly written and bravely imagined. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
New York Times Book Review
CATASTROPHE AND MISFORTUNE are a novelist's friends, dramatic devices that provide a plot and let characters demonstrate their range. Tragedies tunnel through life, and the suspense comes from seeing how these spaces will be filled. This is what excites us about books that begin with a sorrowful bang. Grief is sad - we know that - but what now? How will these particular characters respond? What else do you have to give us? In his masterly first novel, "Did You Ever Have a Family," Bill Clegg gives us June Reid, a small Connecticut town and a fire on the eve of June's daughter's wedding that obliterates everything: June's home, her boyfriend, her ex-husband, her daughter and her daughter's fiancé. How could anyone react to such unfathomable loss? June responds by making a zombielike crawl west to a seaside motel in Moclips, Wash., where she now hides, rarely leaving her room. "She will go," Clegg writes. "Tuck into her Subaru wagon and roll down these twisting, potholed country roads until she finds a highway, points west and away. She will keep going for as long and as far as possible without a passport, since the one she had no longer exists." This opening provides readers with a kind of map and manual, showing us how to read where we'll go and where we won't. We won't be dealing with detectives, insurance agents or the practical matters of death. We won't accompany June to a bank, or a clothing store or the D.M.V. to replace the license she lost in the fire. Surprisingly, we won't even venture into craggy emotional terrain, for June is not that kind of mourner: "She has not cried. Not that day, not at the funerals, not after. She has said little, has had few words when she needs them, so she finds herself only able to nod, shake her head and wave the concerned and curious away as she would marauding gnats." June is reticent, zoned out, moving as if on a conveyor belt. I confess this surprised me a little. Based on the setup and (perhaps naively) the publisher's promise of a book that "elicits a deep and personal response," I anticipated feeling more, grieving alongside the characters. I can't imagine not shedding a tear or speaking to anyone after losing loved ones, especially a child - but grief is custom-made and unpredictable. Not only do the novel's directions point us away from practicalities and immediate heartbreak, but Clegg has created characters who aren't very confiding to begin with. They are riddled with secrets and betrayals they've only just begun to unearth. They have complicated pasts, and it is these - far more than the immediate concerns of the present or the obvious burdens of grief - that the novel is most interested in exploring. While June is undoubtedly the protagonist, other characters provide harmony to her tonic note throughout. Chief among them is Lydia, the town outcast and the mother of June's boyfriend. In Lydia's despair over losing the son she was finally getting to know, she almost willfully succumbs to a lottery scam, her appealingly messy background coming to light through her confessions to the scammer on the phone. A majority of the novel is told from June's and Lydia's points of view, letting us see how their pasts inform their future. But peripheral characters nudge their way into alternating chapters. There is a high school stoner who is stalking Lydia and is haunted by the role he may have played in the fire. There are the couple who own the motel in Moclips. There is the former owner of the motel and friend of the groom's parents. There are the florist and the caterer and the groom's father. A man named George also gets a few chapters, recalling the long-ago affair he conducted with Lydia while his wife was dying. GOT ALL THAT? I had to glance through the book again to make sure I was remembering all of these characters, because some have their say and then disappear. This was initially frustrating - but while the interludes don't necessarily move the story forward, they do add a beautiful layer of sound. What may seem superfluous finally proves lovely and essential. Edith, for example, the florist hired for the wedding: Her monologue supplies a vivid glimpse of the town, its politics and gossip, the divide between the locals and the second-home weekenders. She clandestinely reclaims the daisies meant for the table settings and weaves them into the funeral arrangements. In a businesslike voice she concludes: "When something like what happened at June Reid's that morning happens, you feel right away like the smallest, weakest person in the world. That nothing you do could possibly matter. That nothing matters. Which is why, when you stumble upon something you can do, you do it. So that's what I did." The vignettes provide deft reprieves, a mosaic of a community and its connection to the tragedy. And connection - the way people and their lives fuse - is this novel's main concern. There is little action in the present tense, and hardly any dialogue. Instead Clegg presents us with the characters' memories and accounts. We have to move slowly with them to see how the story lines will connect. June and Lydia are archaeologists, studying their past choices, each move, each secret, each regret and unspoken sentiment, to see the route that leads to their ruins. June especially, who feels her neglect of her old stove led to the accident, ruminates over every step. "She wishes she could return to the front walk just an hour or so ago." She wants to undo every action, every word. Lydia, meanwhile, remembers betraying her son, Luke, the choices she made that failed him. But after June brought Luke back into Lydia's life, she and her son were finally getting close again, "moving cautiously toward the heavy subjects. They were being careful with each other, taking their time. We'll get there, Lydia told June once when she'd pressed about it, but there's no rush now, we have the rest of our lives." Therein lies the quiet heartache of this novel. It's only natural for these people - for any people - to rue their missteps and unspoken words, yet only through the accident could their secrets be released, their better selves emerge, their lives begin. Bill Clegg has written powerfully about his own missteps in two memoirs, "Ninety Days" and "Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man," chronicling his past as a literary agent who lost everything to addiction. Maybe his regrets, his choices and mistakes, were all necessary steppingstones to get to his present life as a recovered addict with a successful career who has two books of nonfiction under his belt and, now, this thoughtful novel. As one character says in "Did You Ever Have a Family" : "It's a relief to finally find where you're meant to be." A woman loses everything to a fire: her home, her boyfriend, her ex-husband, her daughter. KAUI HART HEMMINGS is the author of a story collection and three novels: "The Descendants," "The Possibilities" and the forthcoming "Juniors."