Prairie books NOW - Every Happy Family Review

Reviewed by: Karen Green

The ties that bind

Family dynamics at play in intertwined collection of stories

Every Happy Family by Dede Crane is a collection of linked stories, so linked in fact that the book reads almost like a novel. In fact, Crane thinks of this as "a novel in stories,"

The stories are about the Wright family - mother Jill, father Les, sons Quinn and Beaut, daughter Pema, as well as Aunt Annie, Grandmother Nancy, and Uncle Kenneth. The book is about a family, but also about the individuals that make up that family, the parts of the whole. Like most families, this cast of charcters is varied, with traits in play that work easily together and others that are sticky and sometimes unpleasant. But there is always a backdrop of love.

Crane's title comes from Tolstoy's famous first line in Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The family in this book is complex enough to be unique in both its happiness and unhappiness.

As the book progresses, suspense is built, each story asking for the next with measured dollops of information dropped in a timely way. The stories are told from the various family members' points of view, a style Crane wanted to explore. "Since reading [Ann] Patchett's Bel Canto, I've always wanted to try writing with shifting points of view," she says. 

The structure of the stories inking the different points of view reflects the interdependence of family members. 

"The traditional arc of the individual stories reflects the idea of the individual being shaped by events outside the family circle, and yet the individuals' experiences and choices echo the family he or she is part of, as well as feed back into and influence the family," Crane explains.

"The singular and the plural are completely interdependent in ways we can't see when immersed in the circle of our own family."

Giving each family member a point of view has other effects, as well.

"The reader can see the characters' differing and often flawed perceptions and projections, their own truths. We all, I think, have our own truth that is trying to connect wit hthe greater shared truth of reality beyond our projections," says Crane.

Crane draws on various disciplines and areas of study when she writes. In this book, she applies ideas from Buddhist psychology, which she has studied. Right from the opening sentences, which are the opening sentences of a study essay that Jill is marking, Crane explores the overarching concept of interdependence, which "is a main tenet of Buddhist understanding and is reflected throughout the book."

A future book will draw on Crane's interest in visual art - for the past year, she's been working on a novel based on the life of Berthe Morisot, the first female Impressionist painter. Her research includes taking classes in painting and drawing, and a trip to Paris this coming June.

A former professional ballet dancer, Crane notes the parallel between that discipline and her wriitng. "In the writing itself, I'm instictively award of the rhythms of sentences, their musicality if you will," she says. "Cadence and lyricality are important to me as a reader."

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 edition of Prairie books NOW

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