Shari Goldhagen,
Family & Other Accidents
(Doubleday, 2006)

When Jack Reed was 10 years old, his mother unexpectedly and unenthusiastically discovered she was pregnant, and Connor was born. This story starts when Jack Reed is 25, and Jack's and Connor's parents both die, separately and from natural causes, within a short span of time. Jack become Connor's legal guardian and, while working 80 hours per week trying to establish his career as a lawyer, he does his best to help his younger brother finish growing up.

The story then follows Jack and Connor through the next 25 years as they face various forms of adversity, including relationship, health and financial problems. Jack and Connor always try to be there for one another, but they are both quite inept at creating, building and maintaining any other relationships. At least they are at first. I will not say which one, but one of them goes from "inept" to "fairly good with occasional acts of stupidity," while the other one is much slower at figuring out what love is, what it is not and how to make love work.

I usually give more about plot, but this is not a plot-focused book. It is a character study, and a fictional, longitudinal view of how people develop throughout young adulthood. It is about the people much more than what they do or what happens to them.

Wow. That's not "wow" as in the pace was in overdrive, or the action was incredible, or anything like that. It is "wow" as in, by the end of this novel, I knew these people and everyone in their lives. I knew them, and I cared about them. I cheered their (occasional) successes, and was saddened by their (oftimes self-created) losses. Shari Goldhagen has created a group of real people with realistic, and often quite flawed, relationships with each other. We even see their flaws trickle down to the next generation, although some of their children show signs of being able to grow beyond their parents' flaws and limitations.

Goldhagen not only creates realistic characters who do realistic things; she also writes well. While not a fast read, the book is hard to put down and, when reality forces you to pause, you have a strong urge to pick it back up as soon as possible. I usually feel that way when a book has mystery or lots of action, but this book is low on action, and the only mysteries involved are ones that people face daily: What choice will he make? How will she respond? Is the chest pain just stress, or something more? I wanted to keep reading (and reading) because I wanted to find out what these people were going to do with their relationships.

I have two separate comments about the book that are more atmosphere-related. First of all, Jack and Connor, and some of their love interests, really struggle to distinguish love from sex, as many people (everyone?) do. This blurred distinction shows up in some occasionally jarring (to me at least) incidents, where two otherwise really nice people, developing a good relationship, shift into confused, almost tawdry sex. At first, I saw this as a flaw in the book, but then I realized that the author used these episodes, and the vulgar language sometimes involved, to show us just how difficult love can be, and how much of a challenge love is for these characters.

Secondly, the reader needs to know that this story is incredibly far from being a story that Disney Studios would ever touch, and not just because of the sometimes graphic sex. I will not give away the ending, but it is not an ending that much of Hollywood would leave as is; they would want to re-write it and sugar-coat it and tweak it. Family & Other Accidents is not for the faint of heart, and many readers will need tissues handy, especially in the last third of the story. While the sad tone of the book probably does not reach the level of tragedy, it comes close.

This is a well-written story about very realistic characters and their strengths, flaws and relationships. I will never forget these people.

review by
Chris McCallister

13 December 2008

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new