Thanks to Tolstoy, everybody knows that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Maybe that's not quite the same as saying that unhappy families make the best stories?
But one could make an argument for that, with Elizabeth Crane's We Only Know So Much.
"At the moment, the Copeland family is a bit at odds."
But you wouldn't know it to look at them. Nor would you suspect it from the book cover.
The cover photograph is striking, with its colonial frame house, traditional black and white with bright red gables, largely obscured by tree cover.
It's an appropriate image, because the Copeland family is seemingly a quintessential American family, but its members are largely concealed (not only from each other, but from their own selves).
The cover image suggests safety and comfort, but the font of the title suggests an impromptu element, something messy if not chaotic. And the cardinal, in-flight, is a mark of whimsy or desperation, depending on the reader's perspective on the situation.
And, inside, the Copeland family. At odds. Unhappy. Or, mostly.
Here's how Elizabeth Crane summarizes it about 25 pages into the novel:
"Review: difficult daughter, know-it-all dad, son sweet and okay if a little weird, mom delayed potential/having affair, great-grandmother bitchy, grandad losing it. So we know where we're starting."
She speaks to you directly, engages the reader directly. WE know where WE're starting.
(This kind of direct address doesn't suit every reader, but I've liked it from the moment I discovered "Dear Reader, I married him".)
The "we" as narrative device is actually more appropriate used in this way than it would have been to have portrayed the family as a "we".
The Copeland family is clearly a collection of "me"s not a "we". They orbit this lovely home like satellites whose paths remain stalwartly distinct.
Take Gordon, the patriarch, previously described as the "know-it-all dad", who is a man standing alone.
"He knows they haven't slept together for a while, chalks it up to 'marriage', tells himself it will change, and that it doesn't mean they don't love each other. But without a doubt this childish quiz has planted a seed. We'll see if he reaps it." (103)
Elizabeth Crane's tone is playful, though not light.
The Copeland family is in crisis.
The chapters are splintered among and by perspectives. Voices are largely internalized, with the occasional dialogue appearing in italics. As much as the reader is included in the "we", they are clearly on the margins of this family's experiences.
And, yet, the novel moves along at a steady pace as the crisis transforms the landscape of the story.
We Only Know So Much is an engaging story. Otis' crosswords, the jelly beans, the bookclub, Jean's imagined magazine article titles, Theodore's papers, the pop culture references, Gordon's trivia onslaught: these details coalesce into a narrative with heart.
Stylistically, we find more whimsy than crafting, but these characters do have staying power. (Whenever I heard the names Gordon, Jean, Priscilla, Otis, Vivian and Theodore, for weeks after I read this, I thought back to Elizabeth Crane's novel.)