On an unseasonably warm May 18th, the Wallingford Public Library Thursday Night Book Club met to discuss our May book, Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg. In the opening pages of this tightly controlled novel, a house fire kills four people, including a young couple whose wedding had been scheduled for later that day. The rest of Did You Ever Have a Family is an exploration of the aftermath of that tragedy and its impact on the lives of the family members and friends who survived. Slowly, the pieces of the puzzle of what happened in the hours before that explosion, and in the months and years that preceded it, fall into place. Clegg's first novel is about forgiveness, connection, and families, both the ones we are born into and the ones we make. As one character comments towards the end of the book, "Rough as life can be, I know in my bones we are supposed to stick around and play our part. Even if that part is coughing to death from cigarettes, or being blown up young in a house with your mother watching. And even if it’s to be that mother. Someone down the line might need to know you got through it."
During our hour together, the group spent some time talking about Clegg's background as a successful literary agent in New York City and his years struggling with alcohol and drug addiction (experiences Clegg describes in his two memoirs, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days). It seemed clear to the group that Clegg's need for forgiveness for his own behavior informed the story he wanted to tell in the novel and led to an interesting discussion about what it means to forgive, and the differences between forgiving others and forgiving yourself.
Book club members spoke about which characters moved them the most, which they wished to have heard from more, which ones acted in ways they found confusing and which ones acted in ways they found relatable. A fair portion of the story takes place in Litchfield County, and many people in the room shared their personal knowledge of that part of Connecticut. Several members of the group felt that the book was hard to follow for a time, given that each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character and that the novel's time frame is not exactly linear, but most everyone felt that there were several "aha" moments as one or more of the puzzle pieces fell into place. In the end, we generally agreed that this book about loss, grief, regret, and survival was painful, touching and heartfelt.
Join us at 7 pm on June 15th when we will be discussing Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Copies of the book are available at the Information Desk.