The Santerres are just your typical 20th-century American Catholic family. You know, the kind with two daughters and one much, much younger son.
Liars and Saints follows the Santerres from Yvette and Teddy’s wedding right before World War II through the present day. We watch over the childhoods of their two daughters (insufferably pious Margot and free-spirited Clarissa) and the birth of their son Jamie (well… Margot’s son Jamie, but shhh no one knows that). We watch Margot and Clarissa marry. Clarissa has a daughter, Abby, and the sisters both become, in the most complicated way possible, grandparents. We watch the family fall apart and then, when the worst happens, fall back together.
And THEN, once Liars and Saints is over, we get to hit rewind. A Family Daughter recasts Liars and Saints as a novel written by Clarissa’s daughter, Abby. In the universe of the books, A Family Daughter tells the story of what really happened to the Santerre family; Liars and Saints is Abby’s reimagining of her own family’s history. The details are different, but the members of the family are still very much the same people.
Each of these two books is a fantastic family portrait in its own right. But taken together, these novels are about the way we see ourselves reflected and refracted in our families and in the small choices they have made to shape our world. Abby’s revisionist family history was published first, and I read it first. I think you should too, and then pick up A Family Daughter and think about what’s real and what’s not in this seriously fucked-up, seriously familiar family.
So I hate to be the guy who quotes from someone else’s review in the middle of my own, especially when that someone is Publisher’s Weekly (not that I have anything against them), but this one is just too perfect, too apt, to resist:
“Few authors explore the theme of what defines a family with more compassion and sensitivity than Paterson.”
And that’s exactly it. That’s exactly what’s so wonderful about The Same Stuff as Stars. Katherine Paterson just gets it.
When we first meet Angel Morgan—our 12-year-old protagonist—nothing is perfect, or great, or even okay about her family. Her father is in jail and her mother is an alcoholic who has abandoned Angel and her little brother at a run down farmhouse with their decrepit great-grandmother. The day her mother drives away, Angel is forced even more completely into an already familiar role: matriarch and provider for herself and her brother. Her only escape is nightly lessons in the stars and planets from a mysterious stranger who brings food for the family and a telescope for stargazing.
This isn’t anywhere near as creepy as it sounds, I promise. It’s not creepy at all, in fact. But it is hard to explain without giving too much away. Suffice to say that Mystery Starman’s intentions are entirely pure, and that, with his help and the help of the stars, Angel finds what she’s looking for. It’s certainly not perfect. In fact, it’s pretty sad. But it’s also strong, and hopeful, and real.
There are a lot of reasons to love Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe: country fried Southern hospitality, campy 80s aerobics feminism, a setting so real that you can actually feel the humidity. But the biggest reason is the family at the center. No matter how you read this book—although, frankly, I think you’re a little bit blind and possibly willfully obtuse if you’re reading Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison as just friends—it’s about two women who figure out how to make their own kind of family when the traditional ways are just not right.
Idgie and Ruth have one perfect summer together in 1930s rural Alabama before Ruth goes off to marry a terrible man. And, a few years later, Idgie saves Ruth from that terrible man and brings her back to Whistle Stop, Alabama. There, the two of them, plus Ruth’s (now their) newborn baby, open up the Whistle Stop Cafe, the hub of this tiny town on the edge of the railroad tracks.
We hear about all of this from Mrs. Cleo Threadgoode, an old Whistle Stop native who meets a middle-aged housewife named Evelyn Couch in the visiting room of a nursing home in Birmingham. Evelyn has her own problems—she’s in a slump, feeling stuck in an uninspiring marriage, feeling useless after her two grown children have left home. She’s lived the life she was supposed to, but the script has run out and she’s not quite finished. But, by getting to know Mrs. Threadgoode and Ruth and Idgie, Evelyn figures out a way to be her own person.
Also, yes, it’s a movie called Fried Green Tomatoes.
This was one of those books that was on my To Be Read list for an embarrassingly long time before I actually got around to it. But once I finally did, three pages was all it took to convince me to abandon my plans and spend the evening with Fun Home.
So, naturally, when Dana and I settled on this month’s theme, it was one of the first titles that occurred to me. It remains one of my all time favorite family memoirs, and plus, how could I resist an opportunity to try to convince more people to avoid my mistake and just pick it up already!
In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel (of Dykes to Watch Out For) explores her relationship with her late father, a complicated dynamic made more so by his death (an ambiguous accident that was likely suicide) and its timing (only months after Bechdel had come out to her family and learned of her father’s own closeted homosexuality). It’s a brilliant, honest graphic memoir that deftly achieves the coveted trifecta of smart and funny and sad.
This book took me about three hours to read once I’d finally picked it up, but it was much longer before I felt like I had finished it. The complexity of the ideas and emotions that Bechdel tackles requires time to fully absorb, and her tightly controlled but hugely evocative artwork demands a second (and third, and fourth) look. So here’s my advice: devour it, examine it, sleep on it, repeat.
When you talk about family, you talk about history. It’s impossible not to. Jacqueline Woodson’s picture book, Show Way, is about the way family connects you–and your mother–and your great-great-grandmother–to the past and the present and the future.
It begins with the story of Soonie’s great-grandma, who was sold away from her family when she was seven. Soonie’s great-grandma had a baby girl named Mathis May, and Mathis May had a baby girl whose name history “went and lost,” and that baby girl had Soonie. And Soonie was Jacqueline Woodson’s great-grandma. The writing is gorgeous and rhythmic, with phrases that call back and forth across generations of “tall and straight-boned” women who “loved [their] babies up.” Each mother points her daughter toward the future, but, as Jacqueline’s own mother says to her, “All the stuff that happened before you were born is your own kind of Show Way.”
One of my favorite details about this book is the lost names of Soonie’s great-grandma and Soonie’s mother. Those were real women who really lived–they were Jacqueline Woodson’s great-great-grandmother and great-great-great-great-grandmother (right? did I do the math right?). And even without names, they’re still part of the family. This book is simultaneously and equally about one family’s history and about African-American history. There are so many lost people whose lives and families were torn apart like Soonie’s great-grandma and mother, but those unnamed people are still part of a distinct, individual family like this one.
Soonie’s mama held her
up in the moonlit night.
Showed her the stars,
the moon, whispered
into her ear,
There’s a road, girl.
There’s a road.
Loved that Soonie up so.
Yes, she loved that
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
–Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Speaking of great first lines! This month, we’ll see if Tolstoy was right (spoiler alert: nope). Here are five excellent books about excellent families.
All five of these books have something to say about what it means to be part of a family. They feature families that act together as a collective character, whose members take their individual identities from being related to each other. They’re families that you wish you could be part of, or that you thank God you don’t have to deal with at Thanksgiving. Some are happy; some are unhappy; none are the boring; none are absolutely alike.
And we’re linking to Bear Pond Books this month, in Serena’s hometown, Montpelier, VT. Woot!