Family circle resists shaping

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October 12, 2013

Every Happy Family

By Dede Crane

Coteau Books

247 pp., $18.95

Reviewed by Susan Braley.

Jill, mother, wife and “itinerant” scholar in Dede Crane’s third novel Every Happy Family, thinks “perfection is out there . . . if only she tries a little harder.” For the five years we know her, she devotes herself, lovingly and wearily, to rounding her husband Les and their three teenagers into a perfect circle.  But Crane deftly disrupts her efforts with the cat’s-cradle complications, multiplicities and heart-stopping randomness of real family life.

Language and logic, once grounding for Jill, short-circuit repeatedly throughout the story: a quiet talk with son Quinn doesn’t settle the question of the hidden vodka bottle, and a lecture to enlighten her adopted daughter Pema about misogynist rap lyrics falls short. Her handsome son Beau suffers from a stutter; her kids are more at home with her “faucet mouth” sister-in-law Annie than with her; and her mother, suffering from dementia, can no longer advise her. The lost-language crisis of Langue d’Occ, the subject of her latest paper, is happening in her own home.

Another anxiety for this family circle is its blurring circumference. Already struggling with her mother’s decline, Jill is shaken when Pema’s biological mother asks Pema to meet her in Tibet.  At the same time, Beau longs to set Pema outside his “blood” family, since he has secretly fallen in love with her. Pema questions the status of Quinn’s girlfriend Holly: “He brought a girl. Isn’t this a family event?” Yet Holly and her young son give Quinn the strength to dump a forbidden drink: “Feels like he’s pouring his own blood and thinks he might faint.”

Crane bends the definition of blood relations beyond the biological: her characters long to be truly seen and touched, to feel “the soothing vibration of a living creature.” Jill’s mother imagines a male roommate for herself after surviving a long, unhappy marriage; Les, too ill for love-making, misses Jill’s breasts.  To capture the depth of this longing, Crane includes a tender scene where Satomi, a classmate, explores Beau’s face with her fingers, not her eyes, and then draws it. As her hands linger on his face, he feels known beyond his beauty.

The novel seems to posit that  “outsiders” like Holly and Satomi amplify family, if only temporarily.  When loved ones are overwhelmed, the characters tell their stories to people willing to listen: Annie to a seatmate on a plane, Pema (not trusting her seatmate) to us, Les to an open-hearted teenager in a tree. He observes: “Random encounters with strangers. Is family any different? He’d have to say that Pema, oddly enough, feels more knowable to him, more familiar, than either of his sons, whatever that’s about.”

Crane intimates the interconnectedness of family, in all of its iterations, with the headings she offers in “Parts,” her table of contents. She dedicates the primary chapter titles to family members (for instance, “Les”), and the secondary ones to a category of relative (“Sons”). In “Les,” Les jealously remembers Beau’s coach hugging Beau like a father; in the following section “Sons,” he pushes himself to reach out in a new way to “brainiac” son Quinn. These chapter titles animate the complexities of relationships in the story before and while we read.

Similarly, the time frames dropped in between these titles – Eight Months Later, Three Years Later – generate a lively pace overall. These leaps in time allow the psychic lives of the characters to unfold fluidly, unencumbered by the mechanics of events such as Quinn’s release from assault charges and Pema’s exit from the house.

It is startling, then, to find over one-third of the novel occurs in one long, final chapter, centred on Les’s “Living Wake.”  Although the progress of the characters is enthralling on one level, this section lacks the agility of the previous pages, thus some of its poignancy is lost.  Surprising, too, is the studied effort to “chase the circle closed,” when Jill admits at the wake that it is “impossibly sentimental” to imagine everyone under one roof again, to expect to “come full circle.”  The evening’s ambiguous sun, “oddly like permanence . . . .[a]nd at the same time, as temporary as a breeze,” seems more in keeping with the wise and wistful vision of the novel.

Susan Braley (www.susanbraley.ca) is a writer living in Victoria.

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