So writes Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. The beginning of the quotation suggests that happy families are all alike. Maybe he’s right. There is a certain monotony to those self-satisfied, Kodak-moment families. But are unhappy families all unique? I’m not so sure.
Last Friday Hugh and I went to our local cinema to see August: Osage County based on Tracy Letts’s brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning play. When Hugh heard about my idea for The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells, the novel which I am writing to follow What Milo Saw, he pulled out his copy of Letts’s script and suggested it might be helpful. It sat on my shelf for months. After seeing the film, I read it in three days.
What is it that makes this claustrophobic tale of family strife so brilliant? Its resonance. It’s ‘familiarity’. I was taken back to my childhood summers in Corsica, surrounded by fiery temperaments, huge family meals, debates – and, on occasion, smashing plates in a manner not dissimilar to Ivy, Barbara and Violet at the end of the play:
(Ivy hurls her plate of food, smashes it.)
Barbara: Are we breaking shit?
(Barbara takes a vase from the sideboard, smashes it.)
‘Cause I can break shit –
(Violet throws her plate, smashes it.)
See, we can all break shit.
That wonderful, insane momentum that takes place when the boundary of civility is broken.
The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells takes place in the small, imaginary English town of Holdingwell: in that sense it could not be further removed from Letts’s tale set on the Oklahoma plains. But there is a satisfying affinity between these stories of family life. Both are played out within the walls of a family home which acts simultaneously as a sanctuary and as a prison. In both stories there has been a disappearance, which creates fracture lines between the characters. Disappointment is rife. Secrets seep between the floorboards. There is a brutality to how the family members relate to each other which matches their capacity for intimacy. A tribal loyalty on a par with with betrayal. The telling of truths to match the massive lies that are used to paper over the cracks. They are different stories, sure, but they both tell universal truths about what it means to be part of a family.
I would not dare to compare my novel to Letts’s masterpiece but I am grateful for the reassurance that unhappy families are not so idiosyncratically different after all. Our father might not be a king, like Lear, our mother might not be a matriarchal drug-addict, like Violet (Meryl Streep’s performance is breathtaking) and we may not live amongst the aristocracy of 19th century Russia, but we understand the pain of being part of a tribe that, try as it might, never quite sings in harmony.