Every Happy Family

15 January 2015

Every Happy Family
by Dede Crane
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95 ISBN 978-1-55050-548-1

After finishing Every Happy Family, by Victoria-based Dede Crane, I felt the warmth of being included in a family that truly loves and cares for each other, despite divergent interests and personalities. In short, I felt this family’s embrace.

Crane’s novel is a realistic study of family and the complex relationships that develop between generations, between husbands and wives, and between siblings. Readers are privy to the private thoughts, fears and hopes of various members of the Wright family over a period of five dynamic years.

The story is told through the perspectives of each of the Wrights. Introspective Jill is an “itinerant linguistics scholar”. Words matter to this woman. Her Sandwich Generation responsibilities involve caring for her increasingly eccentric mother (the older woman spontaneously invites two men and a woman-“we need a fourth for bridge”-to live with her), and parenting three teenaged children: studious Quinn; athletic Beau; and adopted Tibetan daughter, Pema. The familial roster also includes Jill’s husband, Les, and her artsy sister-in-law, Annie.

Crane’s taken on a large cast and she’s successfully created completely individual identities for each member. It was interesting to watch this family grow and change as life dealt it some heavy hands. One of the most intriguing story- lines concerns Pema, a “hormone soup” when we first meet her at age 14. At the outset, a letter’s arrived from Pema’s birth mother, and although Les is supportive of a reconnection, Jill can’t emotionally process it. A few years later Pema travels to Jampaling to meet and live with her biological family. When she’s sharing a bed-“a grass-stuffed mattress on top of two wool carpets”-with her step-sisters, she remembers back to when “Her biggest concern in life [was] matching the colour of her highlights to her shoes.”

Quinn becomes an architecture student who eventually connects with a woman his educated mother will look down upon. One of his endearing idiosyncrasies is his habit of thinking of people as the buildings he feels would best represent them. His girlfriend, Holly, is the architectural equivalent of “an old-style cement water tower on a smooth expanse of prairie.”

As in real life, these characters are sometimes delightfully bizarre. Creative Auntie Annie makes leather cumberbunds and flapper tops from plastic straws. She has “a collection of nineteen house keys stolen from lovers.”

Illness plays a roll with two characters, and when one is dealing with cancer, he credibly states: “It’s like having someone sit on your shoulder and whisper ‘you’re sick, you’re sick, you’re sick’ in your ear while you’re trying to think about something else.”

Families are not static, as Crane ably demonstrates. Late in the book we read “How well can we know anyone?” Even when living beneath one roof, it’s difficult for family members to truly know each other. Then the kids grow up, move on, and life spins beyond anyone’s control. By the time you reach the novel’s final scene, you’ll feel like you’re right in the room. Crane delivers a heart-rending experience.


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