I just finished reading Bill Clegg’s “Did You Ever Have A Family”, a novel about loss, grief, regret and sorrow. It revolves around June Reid and the death of four people in a house explosion and the subsequent impact on the lives of their surviving families and the people they touched. It does not have a happy moment in its almost 300 pages.
June Reid’s daughter, Lolly, is about to be married. Lolly, Lolly’s fiancé, June’s ex-husband and June’s live-in boyfriend, Luke, are all staying at Lolly’s house in Connecticut the night before the wedding. After an argument with Luke, June heads out of the house and while she is out, the house explodes and everyone is killed. The resultant grief draws June inward, and she leaves town, spending her time in isolation thinking through her relationships with those who have died and others who have survived. Every thought and every moment is tinged with regret.
Luke’s mother was Lydia. Luke and Lydia had a complex relationship stemming from the moment of his birth and they were just starting to reestablish a connection when Luke was killed. And, as unlikely as it might seem (Luke was thirty years old and June is 52), June and Lydia were becoming close friends.
The book tells Lydia’s complex story through her grief. Like June, Lydia turns inward, but with a number of twists. There are various other characters throughout the book who have unique stories, never cheerful. Most of these characters deal with their grief through limiting contact with the outside world. As one character observed, “we’ve learned that grief can sometimes get loud and when it does, we try not to speak over it.”
A close friend of mine suggested, in no uncertain terms, that I should not read “Did You Ever Have A Family.” She was trying to protect me from the intensity of sorrow that this book would inevitably bring. I questioned reading “Did You Ever Have A Family”. Did I really want to subject myself to a book about intense sorrow? But you don’t need a book about overwhelming loss for the fog of grief to come rolling down. All it takes is a song, a word, a sound or nothing at all. As one of the characters in the novel comments, “It took nothing more than the sight of the wrinkled fabric for every last memory to return.”
In the Sunday, November 8, 2015 NY Times, there is an article written by Laren Stover, entitled “Melancholy’s Sweet Allure.” Although the article seems to be about depression more than melancholy, and although it distinguishes grief as a separate emotion, it made a couple of points which would explain why I chose to read this novel despite the emotions I knew it would evoke. In the article, the author points out that melancholy is ephemeral. “It visits you like a mist, a vapor, a fog. It is generally uninvited.” Stover says it is “fine to indulge in the cloudy charms of melancholy.”
Grief will find you in the light of day and in the darkness of night and you don’t get to pick when it will strike. So maybe reading a grief filled novel simply lets you control the time and mechanism for sinking into that melancholic mist which belongs to no one but you. Even if the rest of the world believes that melancholy is not a good place to be, I think I agree with Stover that the indulgence in its depths can sometimes be a fine place to be. Sometimes a sad novel is just the vehicle to take you there. And you won’t find a novel much sadder than “Did You Ever Have A Family?” If you think you are up for it, you can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11163941.