Debbie's Reviews > Did You Ever Have a Family

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
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really liked it
bookshelves: 2016-runners-up, family-drama

A 3.5, much anguish over whether to go with 3 or 4 stars. 4 stars won, but barely. Great plot and characters--it was the novel's structure that I had trouble with. An ex-editor can be a real pain in the ass.

[Read this paragraph only if punctuation can ruin your day.] For example, there’s the title. Only a crazy grammar Nazi would be annoyed that the book title didn’t have correct punctuation, but there you have it. I just want to know where the damn question mark is. (I have to admit that often I’m totally fickle and lax about punctuation. And some book titles are funny and they successfully throw punctuation caution to the wind. But this title is damn serious, you can just tell, and a serious title means serious punctuation, so where the hell is the question mark?) At first I thought it might be the publisher or Goodreads who listed the book title incorrectly, but no, the book cover is plainly missing the question mark. A horrifying thought is that Clegg intended and expected a question mark, had never even considered that the question mark would be omitted, but the printer blew it. Once the book was in print, the ebook version had to follow suit. (I tell myself this so as not to think that an author would ever promote or approve such a heinous omission.) The sad truth is, these days no one cares about punctuation marks. If I ever wrote a book with a question as a book title and the publisher forgot the question mark, I’d be fucked up for a long while, maybe forever. Okay, deep breaths. Besides, even without the question mark, I think it’s a lame title—it’s a mouthful, plus it has zero impact on me.

The real question, of course, is what I thought about the book, not about a damn AWOL question mark. The plot was a good one, a very good one. Actually, it was a mystery, which for me adds even a few more points to it. I spent the entire book super curious about how the event really happened, and I wasn’t disappointed when in the end, all was exposed.

Here’s the plot: A house explodes, killing all four people within it. Two mothers, from different sides of the track, struggle to cope with the death of their grown kids inside that house. (One of the kids happens to be the lover of the other mother, so emotionally it’s pretty complicated.) Each chapter is told from a different point of view—the two mothers, of course, plus some minor characters.

The book’s biggest strength is the well-drawn characters—they really got to me. What’s the book about? The book is about secrets, about lost connections with the children you love, about being truly alone in the world. It’s about gossip, prejudice, false assumptions, and false charges—and a look at the devastation that they all cause. It’s about the power of love and the power of death. And it’s all about grief: the guilt, the things you wished you had said, the missed connections, the what-ifs, the isolation, the catatonia. How death can be so sudden and shock you to the core, totally blowing your mind. So so much rich stuff here.

But as I said, there were structural problems that sent me downgrading my 4.5 stars to 3.5. Time to get out my chalk and start writing on the board.

Complaint Board

-Too many characters at first; many are tangential. Hard to follow.

-One of the people who died was an ex-husband. The writer should have either included him in the story more, or maybe excluded him from the fire?

-Some of the chapters are told in first person. In my book it’s okay to mix narration types, but in the first-person narrations here, the characters’ voices are too similar. (I have the same problem with Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, and it drives me crazy.) I think it’s a common problem with writers, an inability to move away from their own voice and create other unique personalities. A great writer is one who can create totally different voices, which makes the story and the characters real.

-The story moves back and forth in time, which I wouldn’t mind except it happens within a chapter and gets totally confusing (and annoying). The book starts with events happening right after the fire, and it set me up to think the time frame would be the same, or it would be clear when there was a flashback. Instead, the time periods seem to be convoluted.

-At the end, one of the main characters is heading to visit a man and a woman, on opposite coasts. She changes her mind and decides to only go see the woman. Either add a scene where she visits the guy too, or leave him out of the equation for that final journey.

-Sort of a logistics problem: One of the people who died in the fire was outside the house before it happened. The writer never had him reenter the house. We have to just conclude that he wandered back in, but I wanted to be told he did.

Pshew. See what I mean? Several complaints on my board there. Still, so much wonderful stuff: A good mystery, excellent character study, a solid study of grief. The technique of telling the story from various perspectives mostly worked—it was a cool way to talk about the tragedy and let us see it from many different eyes, and it was effective in making the characters juicily complex.

3.5, rounded up to 4. I’m fondly remembering this book—more evidence that the rounding up is warranted.
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Reading Progress

April 8, 2015 – Shelved
April 8, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
December 30, 2015 – Started Reading
January 8, 2016 – Finished Reading
January 9, 2016 – Shelved as: 2016-runners-up
April 11, 2016 – Shelved as: family-drama

Comments Showing 1-29 of 29 (29 new)

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message 1: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Fantastic review, Debbie.

You raise a very interesting point about the AWOL question mark in title, and I thank you for that. Loved your breakdown on the complaint board.

I shall tackle this with a furrow of contemplation raised above my brow.


message 2: by Esil (new) - added it

Esil Great review Debbie? Oops -- joking aside, I see your complaint board but I'm still curious enough to want to read this one


message 3: by Angela M (new) - added it

Angela M Nice review and I'm glad you decided it was worth rounding up . I recently bought it.


Kelli I was under the impression this was devastatingly depressing & sad. That is why I haven't read it yet. The mystery element is a plus and I'm not hearing from your review that this is crushing. I love your review! Exclamation point rather than a period chosen purposefully.


Debbie "DJ" So happy it got that four stars! Okay, I have a take on the missing question mark. First, have you ever seen a book title with a period, or any punctuation mark? Second, I have often made a statement out of just such a question. So there! Ha! Seriously though, great review. I agree with you that the characters voices were often similar. But I'm still watching a Grey's and Scandal. (Hehe!)


Debbie Mike wrote: "Fantastic review, Debbie.

You raise a very interesting point about the AWOL question mark in title, and I thank you for that. Loved your breakdown on the complaint board.

I shall tackle this with..."


Thank you, Mike! Ha, love your furrow of contemplation raised above your brow :)


Debbie Esil wrote: "Great review Debbie? Oops -- joking aside, I see your complaint board but I'm still curious enough to want to read this one"

Thanks, Esil? Lol. I would really recommend it. I always have something to complain about, so don't let my complaint board scare you off!


Debbie Angela M wrote: "Nice review and I'm glad you decided it was worth rounding up . I recently bought it."

Thanks, Angela. I think you'd like this one. It's s great story.


Debbie Kelli wrote: "I was under the impression this was devastatingly depressing & sad. That is why I haven't read it yet. The mystery element is a plus and I'm not hearing from your review that this is crushing. I lo..."

Thanks so much, Kelli. The characters are sad, and the story is sad, but no, the story wasn't crushing to me. I think because it starts with the tragedy, it makes it easier. You don't get attached to people and then have to watch a terrible thing happen to them. But the survivors do suffer for sure, and their anguish is palpable. I liked the mystery part. I do recommend it, despite the structural problems.


Debbie Debbie "DJ" wrote: "So happy it got that four stars! Okay, I have a take on the missing question mark. First, have you ever seen a book title with a period, or any punctuation mark? Second, I have often made a stateme..."

Lol, okay lady, step away from the vehicle. The grammar Nazi has her red pencil pointing at you! Ahem. The reason there are no periods is because book titles are almost never sentences, so periods don't apply. If you don't watch it, I'll send you Strunk's Elements of Style, and insist you take a quiz after you read it :).

On a more important note, I've ditched Grey's. I don't like Meredith's hair. Period. (No question mark here.) I still like Scandal, except when Huck pulled out Quinn's teeth. Who can resist Olivia Pope?


Glenn Sumi Great review, Debbie! I forgot about the character outside the house who went back in. I totally agree about the sameness of the voices and the confusing time scheme. I gave it 2.5 and rounded up to 3.


Debbie Glenn wrote: "Great review, Debbie! I forgot about the character outside the house who went back in. I totally agree about the sameness of the voices and the confusing time scheme. I gave it 2.5 and rounded up t..."

Thanks, Glenn. I liked your review too. Once you see the problems, it's impossible to ignore them I think. I definitely liked it more than you did, and I'm surprised I'm remembering it fondly. Guess I just liked the two main characters a lot (but there were definitely too many unimportant minor characters). And yeah, I kept waiting for him to go back in the house, but nope!


message 13: by DeB (new) - rated it 3 stars

DeB MaRtEnS Pg. 276-277... "She hears him moving quickly through the house. He has shouted something but she is too far away to hear. It sounds like her name."

So, he did make it back into the house.

However, this three page chapter moves from present time at the motel, back to June's memory of the lawn when she first met Luke, then to the night of the wedding as she crosses the lawn, back to present time as she reflects on the meaning of the original meeting, and then, finally, back to the night before the wedding again. The quote thereupon follows.

The sequences are not especially clear.

I really like your review. Would agree with 3.5, barely. The only one who mentions anger is Dale; a huge part of grief and barely expressed otherwise.

The title is interesting. Call it creative licence here. I "heard" it in a monotone, which would befit the novel, I think.


message 14: by Jean (new)

Jean Holy moley! I've been told that my reviews are long, but this is really long. But really good. Punctuation/sentence structure of these comments is on purpose!


Debbie DeB wrote: "Pg. 276-277... "She hears him moving quickly through the house. He has shouted something but she is too far away to hear. It sounds like her name."

So, he did make it back into the house.

Howev..."


Thanks, DeB. And thanks for your thoughtful analysis! I really don't remember Luke returning to the house--knowing that the paragraph is there and I missed it, makes me give the author more points for sure. But damn, I hate it when I'm wrong :)

But no wonder I missed it, given that convoluted chapter! You described it perfectly--thank you! I had thought maybe I was exaggerating the problem of jumping time. But reading your description of that chapter, I see I was telling it as it is. Past and future, all mixed up!

And interesting point about anger being a big part of grief, and the book giving it little air-time. That seems like a big omission now that I think of it.

Nah, the MIA question mark still doesn't work for me, lol. I've practiced saying the sentence over and over (glad no one is here to see me talking to myself) and it doesn't sound right when I try monotone. I sound like a robot or someone on Thorazine.


Debbie Jean wrote: "Holy moley! I've been told that my reviews are long, but this is really long. But really good. Punctuation/sentence structure of these comments is on purpose!"

Thanks, Jean. Yeah, I don't know how to keep things short. I'm just such a blabbermouth! I envy those people who can get brilliant points across with efficient, succinct language.


message 17: by DeB (new) - rated it 3 stars

DeB MaRtEnS Debbie wrote: "DeB wrote: "Pg. 276-277... "She hears him moving quickly through the house. He has shouted something but she is too far away to hear. It sounds like her name."

So, he did make it back into the ho..."


"I sound like...someone on Thorazine." Yep. That would be it. Flat. Depressed. Devoid of emotion. Numbed. Unable to say the words with affect. Traumatized and disassociative.

That would be June's emotional state when she said it. I don't have the book now to find the page, but the sentence was ended with a period.

Free verse so frequently uses inconsistent punctuation for effect, and I immediately related to the title, and the sentence in the book, as words designed to give an incongruent and tragically powerful message. Words which would not be asked, could not be asked once they left June's mouth, a question matter of factly spoken in casual company now frozen with a period.

The analogy to being on Thorazine would be right on. Horrific, mind numbing, body erasing depression does just that.

So I guess we have to beg to differ on this point! Pun not intended!


Debbie DeB wrote: "Debbie wrote: "DeB wrote: "Pg. 276-277... "She hears him moving quickly through the house. He has shouted something but she is too far away to hear. It sounds like her name."

So, he did make it b..."


Very interesting perspective! Thanks for sharing it.


message 19: by DeB (new) - rated it 3 stars

DeB MaRtEnS Debbie wrote: "DeB wrote: "Debbie wrote: "DeB wrote: "Pg. 276-277... "She hears him moving quickly through the house. He has shouted something but she is too far away to hear. It sounds like her name."

So, he d..."


The world of books opens us to a world of perspectives that we have never twisted ourselves around, literally or figuratively, to examine intimately. We may understand the vocabulary but the writer's descriptions may lead us to a new dictionary of interpretation- and then to the discussion of books with others! Such wealth!


Carol A most thoughtful review but I wouldn't expect less.


Debbie DeB wrote: "Debbie wrote: "DeB wrote: "Debbie wrote: "DeB wrote: "Pg. 276-277... "She hears him moving quickly through the house. He has shouted something but she is too far away to hear. It sounds like her na..."

Very well spoken!


Debbie Carol wrote: "A most thoughtful review but I wouldn't expect less."

Thanks so much, Carol. But oh no, I worry I'll disappoint sometime!


message 23: by Linda (new) - added it

Linda I LOVE that you are a "grammar Nazi"!! I was a proofreader for many years, and I cannot read anything without proofing it as I go. I was known as "The Comma Queen"! ;<]


Debbie Linda wrote: "I LOVE that you are a "grammar Nazi"!! I was a proofreader for many years, and I cannot read anything without proofing it as I go. I was known as "The Comma Queen"! ;<]"

Thanks, Linda! Love to find fellow grammar Nazis (all proofreaders are, let's face it)! Check out Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite. I read part of it a couple of years ago. It's a riot. I pick it up now and then and have great plans to finish it, but that hasn't happened yet. I'm all happy that it's there waiting for me!


message 25: by Linda (new) - added it

Linda Debbie, I've got to check out this book. I'm sure I'd enjoy it, if that title is any indication. How fun! I had a book similar to the one you mentioned--"Woe is I." Like you, I'd read it from time to time. I loaned it to someone and never got it back. This sounds like a good replacement. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!! So, you think we're snobs? Hahaha


message 26: by Kira (last edited Mar 12, 2017 03:56PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kira FlowerChild I am an editor and normally a grammar Nazi but I felt the lack of a question mark was absolutely appropriate for this novel. You know the old saw, you have to know the rules in order to know when to break the rules. In this case, it was exactly right. And BTW, re Luke going back into the house, there is a moment just before the explosion where June hears Luke calling her name from inside the kitchen. She didn't *see* him go back into the house, but she had dozed off in the tent for a little while. I, too, wondered about Luke being in the house when both he and June had gone outside so I was keeping an eye out for exactly that: If Luke was outside, how did he get killed in the explosion? Apparently you missed those few sentences, one or maybe two, I believe during June's narration.


message 27: by Linda (new) - added it

Linda For some reason, I got an email for this thread? Anyway, I was happy that I'd did, because of Kira's last comment! I know that feeling so well.
AND, (I know, never start a sentence with a conjunction!) Debbie, I wanted to share with you that I loved the Grammar Snobs book! I've referred to it many times, since reading it. Great addition to my library. Thanks so much!


message 28: by Kevin (last edited Feb 21, 2018 09:14AM) (new)

Kevin Ansbro I care abou’t punctuation’s too. Debbie’s? and the omission of tha’t question’s mark is highly’s irritating?
Seriously, though, it annoys the heck out of me, as much as it did you! I’m with you on this one, Debbie.


Sharon Debbie - The lack of a question mark bothered me, as well. I too am a former editor, but anyone who has a basic grasp of grammar, usage, and punctuation might feel the same way. (less)


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