'Family' Is An Expertly Crafted Story of Tragedy
The scene that opens Bill Clegg's impressive novel Did You Ever Have A Family is of a fire burning down Jane Ried's home.
It is the eve of her daughter's wedding, and Jane is the only survivor. The bride, the groom, Jane's ex-husband, and her current boyfriend, Luke, all die. Jane is one of the summer-people-turned-resident in the small town of Wells, Conn. She winterized her large home and was essentially an outsider-- most of the residents of Wells served the summer people. Luke was a townie with a complicated past.
Speculation about how the fire started is a thread that runs through this story of individual and collective grief. Since the property was quickly bulldozed, the rumors will seemingly never be substantiated by the truth. We feel for each heartbreak, feeling for Jane; and Luke's mother, Lydia, who has many regrets; and Rick, whose mother the wedding caterer went unpaid, among others. The narrative switches character and voice--first and third person--creating distance and intimacy when necessary. This could be awkward, but comes across with aplomb. No herky jerky adjustments or wait-a-minutes since the transitions are skillfully accomplished.
The way Bill Clegg lures us into this varied and empathetic cast of characters, scaffolding the details through each episodic chapter, is nothing short of amazing.