Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
For me, three stars is a good review, so I’ll say at the top that I liked this book and admired what Haslett has accomplished with it. As a novelist myself, though, I wish the publishing business would allow more of us to write books like this, heavy on character and light on plot, because that’s how you get to the realistic core of what it is to be human. This family — Michael, Alec, Celia, Margaret, and John — is the tragic host of another character (clinical depression) that governs everything in their lives. A formulaic plot doesn’t cut it with a story like that; you need to get deep inside these people, and Haslett succeeds beautifully.
The technique of multiple first-person voices is a great approach here. We hear from each family member in alternating segments, though only Michael’s voice truly stands out with energy and real individuality. Ironic that he’s the depressed one. The other family members sound a lot alike in their low-grade suffering, typical New Yorker short story voices, really. Not much of a there there in the female characters, which is a shame. We appreciate their takes on Michael more than anything, but they seem mired in place and don’t seem to evolve like Michael and Alec do.
But the treatment of how clinical depression affects patients and their families is painfully accurate and moving. We understand what is happening and, like the family itself, can’t do anything to stop it. A family member with depression is always boxed in or set aside, with everyone hoping that the drugs start working one day.
Haslett’s writing is literary and well-crafted, though now and then it feels like we might have seen some of these moments before. His main achievement in this book is to have taken on a tragic situation honestly and without sweetening it for easier consumption. The thing that is left for people close to loved ones with depression is often an enduring sense of guilt.