As a screenwriter and a playwright, it’s not surprising that Tracy Barone’s debut novel, Happy Family, reads like a series of scenes.
The first unfolds on August 5, 1962. “The pregnant girl enters the Trenton Family Clinic, looking like she parted the Red Sea to get there.”
She is as adept at sneaking out of the hospital after giving birth as she was sneaking doses of morphine while an ER nurse has gone to fetch the necessities, while the rest of the staff was coping with other life-and-death matters.
The baby is left behind to serve as the inspiration for a nearly-400-page-long novel.
The success of the novel depends upon the reader’s faith that the scenes will assemble themselves into a montage.
Initially it is disorienting because readers have no sooner settled into the pregnant girl’s story, when they are pulled into Billy Beal’s narrative. (Billy witnessed her escape but was unnamed in the opening segment, because although the girl noticed him, she did not appear to recognize him even when he appeared again later on the edges of the scene.)
There is an explanation offered at the end of the story, presented in the voice of a character whose story emerges with the novel’s second of four parts, titled “Chicago 2002: somewhere in the middle”.
“If life is a river, we can see only a small patch of it. A little in front of us, some behind. We don’t know when we’re going to run into a tributary or hit a waterfall. If you could pull back and up to see how it all connected to the ocean, if you could see the whole story of all of your parents and their parents, would it alter your memories of them?”
Happy Family is an attempt to reveal the whole story. And, of course, this involves a preoccupation with the whole family. But there is no sense of intimacy here, neither between characters or between reader and story.
“She is filled with a deep longing, the profound sense of missing something she’s never really had. It’s young and primitive, the fantasy of family; the idea that someone is threre for you no matter what.”
The novel is more about longing and grasping, sometimes about the near-grasp of something meaningful. This is not only evident in specific plot developments, but in the characterizations of eras as when 1984 is described as a time in which women could bring home the bacon and cook it too.
More than halfway through the novel, a character visiting a psychiatrist is told: ““All children long for a sense of family. However fractured yours was, these people were connected to you. They were the other piece of the puzzle.”
But while engaged in treatment, it’s clear that the emphasis is on the fracture rather than the connection.
Happy Family, which opens with the famous Tolsoy epigraph about happy families, is (as one might guess) not so much about happy families after all.
Anna Karenina wasn’t an entirely happy tale either; in fact, the moments of happiness ultimately seem far outweighed by the suffering. Whether a character is debating the merits of medcation versus meditation, or whether they are struggling with the lumps in a banana-bread batter, trouble is afoot.
Tracy Barone writes very well about sorrow. For much of the novel, the description is light (which suits a writer accusomed to having a prop department at her fingertips), although there are occasionally some bright bits of imagery. (One of my favourites: a dog’s “tongue hanging like a wind-blown necktie.”
But she can write about sadness very well. (This is a long quote, but it also reveals the sensual nature of some of the prose, and the emotive power of particular narrative events. Note: I have omitted one word from this passage, as it would spoil a plot development.)
“It’s amazing how sadness can make itself infinitesimally small so as to invade even the whisper of an opening. But once it enters, it transmutes, into a vast, carnivorous beast, relentlessly, growing through flesh and tissue, organ by organ. It had been waiting years, tick-like, for this moment. Despite her attempts to use drugs and booze as sealants to plug up the cracks, the sadness has found its way in. It’s consuming her, she can feel its tundra breath on her neck. Buckle, wail in anguish, rend garments like a normal person, for fuck’s sake, give it what it wants.Take the pill to make you taller or stop running and take its grotesque head in your hands and kiss it on its open mouth.”
As preoccupied with loss as it is with love, Happy Family perhaps could use some finesse to plug up the cracks between the scenes, but the scenes themselves are vividly and powerfully drawn and I look forward to seeing it dramatized on screen.