A former managing editor of The Paris Review and a senior editor at Tin House considers the darkness lurking beneath the outward happiness of three marriages—her wealthy parents', her in-laws', and her own.
“A woman walks into the sea.” So begins Jeanne McCulloch’s shimmering gem of a memoir...which elegantly recounts the unraveling of three unions ... All Happy Families is so much more than snapshots in a family album. It is an unflinching look at the darkness that tears at lives that appear, at first, so filled with promise and joy ... one might ask, why should we sympathize with the problems of the wealthy? However, All Happy Families transcends its setting amid the bearers of white privilege to become a universal work about loss—the loss we all feel as we recall summers past, marriages broken, parents in decline. It captures the double vision of retrospect, the way we, as adults, see things clearly both as we believed them to be and as they really were ... What is especially striking about McCulloch’s narrative is its lack of anger; although she in no way minimizes her parents’ individual faults, she is remarkably generous in her portrayals of them ... What elevates All Happy Families to the realm of literature is the quality of McCulloch’s style. Each sentence is beautifully crafted, at times calling to mind the writing of the late James Salter, whom McCulloch credits as inspiration in the acknowledgments. The prose has the same quality as the light in East Hampton—clear, bright, with moments of sharp focus and stretches shrouded in the gauzy, late afternoon haze of reflection[.]
The families McCulloch writes about...strive hard, mainly through the Herculean efforts of the mothers, to create cohesion, identity, all appearance of harmony. Inevitably, it seems, these efforts are, if not doomed, at least fractured. Meanwhile, McCulloch’s observations are priceless. It’s a little disappointing that she follows daughterly convention by saving her most savage lines for her mother while letting her father—a wealthy alcoholic who spends his time mastering ever-more obscure languages and writing stories for his children about an octopus who goes on eight-fisted bar crawls—off easy. But she is by turns piercingly vivid and and devastatingly amusing nonetheless ... There is much to enjoy here and much to think about ... In the midst of all these fragments straining for togetherness, there is, in fact, nuance and grace.
To McCulloch, her father is a tragic figure with a mythic past. In memoirs, figures such as these can seem melodramatic because there is a clear disconnect between the opinion of the memoirist and the critical view of the reader. Because of this, McCulloch’s book tends to assume that the reader will feel as she felt, that her testimony will affect the reader as the events of her life affected her. But not quite so ... McCulloch’s writing is at its best in All Happy Families when she simply tells what happened and what was said, leaving the melodramatic element to arise from the reader’s reaction instead of pawing at what she assumes the reader’s feelings to be ... Although All Happy Families is structured as an emergence from the solipsism of youthful self-pity to an understanding of the struggles we all face, the book still identifies the men as the culprits. It leaves the reader with the sense that something is being hidden, if only tacitly, by the author. The author resists laying her family completely bare and exposed for the world to see ... Despite having written 240 pages about the topic, McCulloch seems to not quite understand her story ... Nevertheless, McCulloch’s book is a worthy read due to her simple yet powerful prose style and her amazing ability to recreate scenes and dialogue from memory that deliver an emotional punch similar to her first experience ... a memoir with all the qualities of a best-seller, but that will also be enjoyed for the wrong reason—the tragedies suffered, not the lessons learned.