Jeanne McCulloch’s Riveting Debut ‘All Happy Families’ Hits Home

all happy familiesThis paid review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jeanne McCulloch‘s poignant debut memoir, All Happy Families, examines the precarious nature of familial life and love in the wake of her father’s fatal stroke on the eve of her 1983 wedding. The family’s excitement suddenly shifts into a haze of shock and numbness, but there is never any question about the wedding continuing as planned. Jeanne’s imperious mother, Pat, has only one instruction for the hospital on the morning of August 13: “If anything happens to my husband this evening, do not call this house. We cannot be disturbed…We are having a party.”

McCulloch hones in on dialogue like this and connects it to past and future moments throughout the narrative, deftly exploring the incidents that stem from that day in August. She chronicles the ripple effect of her father’s death without judgment, moving from her childhood on Park Avenue and her father’s descent into alcoholism to the courtship between her and her husband, Dean, and the tentative position she holds within his family.

If McCulloch’s memoir could be defined by any one line or moment, it would come from something her mother says during a hurricane season while the family is living in their Hamptons vacation home — a place that exists as its own character in the narrative. She says: “We live on such a perilous dune. All of this could just go, like that.”

Not only does Pat’s simple observation pinpoint the all-encompassing fact of our transience as human beings, but also the small ways in which love and the halcyon days of youth morph over time.  McCulloch points to the happy moments of her childhood when her father, John — an immensely wealthy hyperpolyglot — would take his daughters on trips all over the world, a chance for him to practice one of his many languages; or days after school when she and her sisters would style his hair into outrageous designs while watching sitcoms that would make him snort with laughter.

Looking back, though, McCulloch recognizes that her father was at the beginning of a steady decline as his dependence on alcohol worsens. Even the childhood stories John made up for his children featured an octopus named Franklin who frequents a bar and orders drinks for all eight tentacles. Nevertheless, the lucidity and precision with which the author recollects her past and deconstructs the multiple perspectives that layer each remembered encounter successfully avoids the hyper-sentimentality that often accompanies similar stories.

Yet it isn’t entirely clinical, either. There are moments when I wonder what she’s thinking or how she manages to keep herself together or she’s communicating with her husband during certain scenes since she positions herself as an observer in almost all situations, but she never dips into self-indulgence — everything pieces into the atmospheric and thematic prose that she’s weaved together. Best of all, the text never lacks for humor and grace in the midst of bad circumstance.

With spare and economical writing, she elucidates the ways in which the “perilous dune” crumbles. Whether we want it to or not. The point — which she gets at without making too much of a fuss–is that people go on anyway. Because that’s what life is.

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