Thanks to Tolstoy, everybody knows that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

HarperCollins, 2012

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.

(You can see from the excerpt above that the phrases pile upon each other like cousins in a holiday game of flag football, but that’s not to say that curses aren’t ringing out from the bottom of the pile, even if it looks like a barrel of laughs when you’re watching from the sidelines.)

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.

Partly this is connected to the sense of each character’s distinct voice, the variety propelling the narrative events forward, even when the individual characters are mired in stagnancy.

Priscilla, the “difficult daughter” for instance, has a distinct voice which is as believable as it is annoying.

“Priscilla is doing everything she can to remain calm, but she is totally freaking out. It’s seriously like her destiny has come to her right now, right here at the food court. She tilts her head and nods in what’s meant to be a thoughtful way, a way that indicates anything but that she’s freaking out, a way that says, I think thoughtful things, a way that says she’s interesting.”

(As frustrating as Priscilla can be, there were some laugh-out-loud moments for me with her as a reader: her job interview was particularly fun to read.)

Mostly the use of language and structure suits the characters, but occasionally the playful-but-not-light tone verges on being “a-bit-too-clever”.

For instance, the following simile rings true, but not in the voice of the grandfather; it would have been better saved for one of the young brother’s experiences (Otis).

“Theodore finally raising himself up only to knock something else off the pile with an uncooperative elbow, a series like this carrying on for any length of time, like a protracted game of Mousetrap.”

(But, seriously, how annoying is the neverending circle of the mice around that cheese. I’d rather have taken twice as long to build the trap in the first place!)

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.)

Have you read either her short stories or this novel? Are you thinking about it?

More thoughts on this novel:
Tuesday, June 12th: The House of the Seven Tails
Thursday, June 14th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Monday, June 18th: Just Joanna
Tuesday, June 19th: BookNAround
Thursday, June 21st: nomadreader
Thursday, June 28th: Kahakai Kitchen
Thursday, July 5th: lit*chick
Thursday, July 12th: Shall Write
Tuesday, July 31st: Books and Movies