After the immense success of Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, the market seems hungry for stories of growing up in difficult situations. Although All Happy Families by Jeanne McCulloch, former managing editor of The Paris Review, tempts the reader into believing the story will center on the hardship of having complicated parents and trying to maneuver in the upper echelon of society, in this memoir McCulloch hesitates and instead examines marriage and commitment while grappling with the details of her childhood.
The book’s simple three-part structure begins on the threshold of McCulloch’s own marriage, taking place at the family home in the Hamptons. In an effort to deal with her alcoholic husband, McCulloch’s mother forces her alcoholic husband to quit drinking cold turkey, forcing his hospitalization. Her mother tells the hospital not to call during the wedding. She doesn’t want the distraction for her daughter’s big day.
The book could not be considered linear by any means, as memories leak into the chronological narrative. After the initial scene, the structure of the book becomes complicated, with scenes spliced in to display the socioeconomic factors that led to the dissolution of her parents’ and in-laws marriages, as well as her own. The book, which McCulloch assures the reader in the afterward took a long time to write, conducts an autopsy on her family’s life and her own marriage.
McCulloch’s family is complicated. Neither of her parents work. Instead, they live extravagantly on family money. Although McCulloch confronts this aspect of her life only indirectly, she lingers when describing the family’s employees—the housekeeper, the gardener, the wedding planner, the seamstress. Money seems to be a profound worry for her, not just the possession of it and the opportunity it offers, but also the baggage of social distaste for those raised in luxury.
“Nothing could have gotten me to admit to a stranger that in fact the entrance to my building was …on Park Avenue, and that my family resided for twenty-five years in the duplex at the top. I was too wary of what the immediate calculation would be. Money.”
The opening sequence of the book compares McCulloch’s mother to Edna Pontellier’s famous death at the end of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a story of opulence and marital neglect. But this reference is too tangential and serves like a stray detail that doesn’t elaborate on the themes of the book. There are other high-brow literary allusions, often presented as simply as a single italicized sentence, within the book that don’t quite come off, but are dropped casually in the text much like Joan Didion does in her book, The Year of Magical Thinking. But McCulloch is not one of the great masters of nonfiction, and the effect seems a pale imitation.
Patricia, her mother, ends up alright after the death of her husband, inheriting all of her husband’s wealth and living a cosmopolitan lifestyle in Paris. But McCulloch’s mother’s fixation on class and society, symbolized by her constant reading of a book called The Social Register, a New York elite version of the peerage, seems to be a culprit for many of the author’s own insecurities. Patricia is lively and engaging, parading around New York as a European, adopting accents, and constantly stepping in and out of elaborate muumuus and Lilly Pulitzer shifts.
Despite her quiet distaste for her mother’s social egotism, McCulloch defends her family as being in some way before the elites. They are an old money family, and because her father was not interested in working, that wealth was not going to last forever. So, in a sense, they are more normal than other wealthy people, she suggests. They spend the majority of the year in Manhattan in a grand apartment but luxuriate during the summer out in the Hamptons. McCulloch is sure to warn the reader that this was before the Hamptons had all the glitz, glamour, and golf courses it currently boasts.
Like her struggles with financial stability, many sequences show the author struggling with her understanding of her father, seeing him deteriorate so quickly in front of her in the present, despite the lore of his accomplishments as a young man. She writes: “He was by all accounts a shy boy, growing up in impersonal and joyless luxury, and I wonder where the love of foreign languages took root… These secrets of the past that can only be pieced together through a few stories handed down through the generations…”
Contrast this passage with the first view she offers of him: “My father would spend entire mornings with his books, a can of Budweiser by his side, his glasses in a slow slide down his nose.”
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.
The book’s structure centers around the dissolution of three marriages central to McCulloch’s family life. Her parents, unique and volatile as they are, faded away from each other as John, the author’s father, became consumed by drinking.
This happens shortly before McCulloch’s own wedding, and as her family falls apart, her new in-laws seem stable, normal, and loving. She suggests that she believed her family was unique in their misery and complication, but the rest of the book’s purview, hinted at by the title, elucidates a basic truth of life: Everyone has baggage. No family is perfect.
The second part of the book focuses on her in-laws, Helen and Raymond Jackson. McCulloch frames their story as one of general normalcy—Helen makes fudge and knits sweaters; Raymond takes the family sailing off the Maine coast. They had always seemed in love and, due to their stability, she had always considered them a foil for her own parents.
But in such a slim, carefully structured book, McCulloch’s idealism is shattered quickly as the stable marriage, the one to which she aspires with Dean, her husband-to-be, falls apart. Readers affected strongly by dialogue will have their hearts torn out by these passages.
“‘The fact is,” Raymond said… “It seems I have fallen in love with another woman.’”
Helen, Dean’s mother, stings the reader with her fragility. She does not know the past without her husband, and a future without him is unimaginable.
“‘We haven’t made any permanent decisions yet,’ Helen finally got out, wiping her eyes. ‘We’re going to give it ‘til Christmas, right, Daddy?’”
It is a real heartbreaker. Although the marriage of McCulloch’s parents ends with a death, the end of her in-laws’ marriage is possibly worse. It wasn’t an unanimous decision.
McCulloch does well to draw comparisons between Raymond and John, her own father. They both have skinny legs and tend to remain static within scenes. But in that the author makes an indictment, one that seems an exaggeration. It is a novel about cowardice, one man unwilling to give himself to his wife while preferring a boozy haze, another reaching the crest of life’s hill hand in hand with his life’s partner and choosing to change directions.
The book proves its purpose further in the third part of the book, when McCulloch writes about the end of her own young marriage. After plainly stating the general incompatibilities of their marriage, she then writes: “Dean had been spending a lot of time floating in an isolation tank owned by an elderly couple on Central Park West.”
Her ex-husband, like her father and father-in-law, would rather attempt to leave the world instead of confront his own decision of marriage. To McCulloch, this is as bad as debilitating alcoholism and cheating. Neglect causes similar fragility. So is it only men that are in the wrong here? Other than a brief self-effacement by McCulloch in her statement that her career-driven lifestyle took up a lot of her time, the onus falls firmly on the Y-chromosome.
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.
Thus, it may be hard to say what truly happened in the McCulloch and Jackson clans in years long past. Despite having written 240 pages about the topic, McCulloch seems to not quite understand her story either.
She ends with her mother’s insistence that life moves forward, that each day is rife with possibility as McCulloch looks back at the family house in the Hamptons for the last time. Innocence lost surely, never to be regained. But the tragedy of marriages lost is only a memory, and the book more a path toward forgetting the past than learning from it.
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. After years of editing, McCulloch has stepped out from behind her desk and produced a memoir with all the qualities of a best-seller, but that will also be enjoyed for the wrong reasons—the tragedies suffered, not the lessons learned.