Sunday, May 8, 2016

Book Review: Did You Ever Have a Family

I knew nothing of this New York Times bestselling author, Bill Clegg, prior to picking up this audio book, Did You Ever Have a Family. Apparently, this is his fiction debut. He is a literary agent and has previously written two memoirs about his addiction to crack cocaine. While the book was more liberal than most writing I seek out, I was blown away by the evocative, poetic language. The writing was really stellar. Clegg has created realistic characters in the cross-hairs of a significant life-altering event.

June Reid is preparing for the day of her daughter's wedding, when an unexpected tragedy takes the lives of her daughter and fiance, her ex-husband, and her boyfriend, Luke. June is left reeling in the wake of the disaster and drives off, numb and alone, headed for an oasis on the Pacific Ocean that had held beauty and personal meaning for her daughter. The book unfolds with narrator after narrator responding to their lives up to that moment and after the dreadful incident. This was confusing at times in the beginning - especially so since I was listening instead of reading. But, it felt like watching a painter drop spots of paint onto a canvas until eventually the full picture is rendered and the tiny dots hold greater meaning. It was the words that fully sucked me in. As Darin Strauss writes of the book: "Like the question it poses, Did You Ever Have a Family is brutally direct yet it's got an enormous symbolic power. [It is] a great book of kindness - every restrained, exquisite sentence comes loaded for bear." Truly Clegg has packed a potent punch with every word and drawn images with beauty and devastation combined.

I was especially moved by this passage in the final chapter:

"Rough as life can be, I know in my bones we are supposed to stick around and play our part. Even if that part is coughing to death from cigarettes, or being blown up young in a house with your mother watching. And even if it's to be that mother. Someone down the line might need to know you got through it. Or maybe someone you won't see coming will need you. Like a kid who asks you to let him help clean motel rooms. Or some ghost who drifts your way, hungry. And good people might even ask you to marry them. And it might be you never know the part you played, what it meant to someone to watch you make your way each day. Maybe someone or something is watching us all make our way."

Indeed, when life is rough, others are watching and are often blessed and encouraged by the sheer bravery and humanity expressed in our reactions to difficulties. I think of my blogging friend, Amy, and her recent terrifying experience almost losing her husband to heart failure. She wrote so eloquently about the experience that I wept along with her and marveled at her fortitude and courage. Or I think of my friend, Lisa, who lost her ten year old son to an undetected birth defect twenty years ago (the day after my oldest son was born) and has maintained her faith in God and is such a powerful witness and tool in His hands, all the more because of what she has endured and experienced. As Bret Lott expressed in Letters and Life (reviewed here), we are "blessed to be a blessing," even when that blessing shows up disguised as a tragedy or intense difficulty we would rather not endure. Maybe, especially when we go through challenges. We are supposed to play our part and in enduring, help someone else to endure.

Despite coming from a different perspective on life, I could relate to much of what Clegg presents. The story reveals humanity at its rawest moment. The words transport the reader into an experience foreign and yet familiar. Kudos to Bill Clegg on a moving novel of hope in the midst of tragedy and grief.

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