“All we can do is play our parts and keep each other company.”
Something funny occasionally happens when you finish a book and let some time pass before you write a review of it. As I was reading Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family I loved it. The only thing that bothered me was the lack of a question mark in the title. Not to seem picky, but even the Alan Shapiro poem the title is derived from has a question mark. Its absence here makes my eyes twitch.
I finished this novel in late November, and we’re now in mid-January. Reflecting on the book since I turned the last page, I began to realize that every character in the book spoke in the exact same voice–regardless of their age or background, and this book has many voices with varied ages and backgrounds. Every one of them ultimately sounds the same.
Which made me realize that none of the characters had really resonated with me. As time was passing, their stories were fading from my memory. Worse still, I didn’t miss them. They didn’t haunt me the way you might think they would considering the novel deals with the aftershocks of an explosion and fire that leaves a woman the sole survivor of her small family. The grief and reflection I had been mesmerized by when I was reading didn’t stick around at all. When I think of this book now, it seems flavorless.
But that isn’t at all what I thought when I read it. When I read it, I was quietly moved by the way Clegg captured the clumsy fumbling human beings go through in search of connection, and by the ultimate knowledge that all connections are temporary anyway. We can’t hold on to them in the end. But it turns out Did You Ever Have a Family moved me not because of the book itself, but in ways it resonated with thoughts that had already haunted me, and which continue to haunt me.
Even as I read it, though, part of me was irritated by the way Clegg keeps teasing out details that you already predict. There aren’t as many surprises in this narrative as he thinks there are.