This debut novel by Bill Clegg, Did You Ever Have a Family, published September 1, 2015, was nominated for numerous awards for fiction, and those nominations are well deserved. I started reading this book thinking I would see if it were as good as I expected, then go back to reading the book for my next book club meeting. That didn’t happen. I wasn’t hooked on the first page, but soon found that I couldn’t put it down. The book club book had to wait.
In this brilliant, powerful, and tragic story of loss and redemption, Clegg covers almost everything the human condition endures: undeserved guilt and self-blame over accidents, bullying, racism, cruel and incorrect assumptions, neglect of responsibility, regret, parent-child anger and estrangement, and more.
On the evening prior to her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s historic home in the Hamptons burns, taking the lives of her lover, Luke, her daughter, Lolly, her ex-husband, Adam, and their future son-in-law, Will. June blames herself for negligence. Simultaneously, a young neighbor boy also blames himself for causing the explosive fire, realizing that when he tried to help, he actually made matters worse.
Devastated, June leaves town and drives cross-country to a mom-and-pop motel on the coast of Washington state where her daughter once stayed. June is alone and directionless, merely existing. Meanwhile, the people of her town are busy exacting blame, making assumptions about June’s too-young-for-her lover, his mother, Lydia, even about June. As the story unfolds, these lives turn out to be connected in more ways than even they know.
The title is taken from June’s response when asked some version of “how are you”. She replied, “Did you ever have a family?” Most of us can relate to that. Most of us cannot, however, relate to the myriad devastating events in the lives of these characters.
Were there some things to make this reader grumpy? Well, yes. Frequent use of split infinitives, incorrect tense of some words, for example “forbid” when he should have used “forbade”, and “showed”, when he should have used “shown”. Clegg’s dialogue did not contain quotation marks. Instead, all dialogue was written in italics. It took a while to become accustomed to this, as most authors use italics to show a character’s unspoken thoughts during dialogue.
On the other hand this book contains many gems such as, “…like most things, what seemed important and wrong on one day could barely be remembered the next….” and “Funny… how things change when you look at them with older eyes.” These are things I wish I had known when I was younger.
Did You Ever Have a Family is well worth your time. For a debut novel to be this powerful, I can’t help but wonder what Clegg will produce next. It will be a hard act to follow, and you won’t soon forget it or its characters.