A Good Family
by Erik Fassnacht
You can’t live with ’em. You can’t live without ’em.
So might be the guiding principle of Erik Fassnacht’s debut novel, A Good Family, a tale of four adult family members learning what it means to stick together while remaining individuals.
Fassnacht, who grew up in Elmhurst, has set his novel in Chicago and its western suburbs, taking the reader from Lakeview to Downers Grove, where the Brunsons live, still in the house where they raised their children. Everyone except the father, that is. Patriarch Henry Brunson, a narcissist going through something of a midlife crisis, has abandoned his suburban home for a single’s life on the Gold Coast, despite the fact that he hasn’t actually divorced his wife—instead he’s just left her hanging, hoping that the husband she once knew will come back into her life. His two grown sons are somewhat bewildered but accepting, although angry, about the entire situation, which has thrust their mother, Julie, into a suicidal depression.
Neither of the sons is living a perfect life, either. Charlie, the eldest, has just returned from Afghanistan, where he experienced some deeply troubling things—things that led to his discharge from the Army, things he doesn’t want to talk about and doesn’t know how to talk about. He has moved back into the house his father left, trying to not go all Christopher Walken à la The Deerhunter while figuring out what the rest of his own life should look like. Barkley, the younger of Harry’s and Julie’s two children, is embarking on a new job as an English teacher at a Catholic school, despite the fact that he has barely a religious bone in his body.
And so the stage is set. The PR materials for the book call the novel a story about “what family can—and cannot—be.” In many ways, however, the story is less about the Brunsons as a familial unit as it is about the individual lives of four people who happen to be related by blood. Indeed, each of these four main characters—Harry, Julie, Charlie, and Barkley—is treated in almost equal measure. Although the flap copy focuses on Harry, it is Barkley who steals the show.
Barkley emerges as the glue that holds the family together. When a life-changing event strikes Harry, it is Barkley who deals with it, keeping Harry’s secret until he can no longer do so and then breaking the news to Julie and Charlie. It is Barkley, too, who seems to take the most interest in this strange new Charlie who has arrived home from Afghanistan. And it is Barkley about whom we learn the most, from his failed attempts at becoming a writer to his inexpert efforts at being a boyfriend to his newfound self-confidence that springs from his fledgling career as a high school teacher. Poor Barkley seems to have an awful lot going on in his life—some good, some bad, some yet-to-be-determined—and he emerges as the most sympathetic character in the novel.
But all of these characters—the Brunson family and the supporting cast—are fighting for attention in The Good Family. As such, there is a lot going on here, and it can be difficult to root for the Brunson family as a whole when each member of the foursome is treated so separately from the other.
That said, the characters in these pages are richly drawn, and their experiences are wrought with feeling. At times laugh-out-loud funny, at times heartbreaking, The Good Family is absorbing. Fassnacht does well conveying real emotion, bringing his characters and their story to life without much in the way of trite clichés or facile metaphors. Furthermore, he does so in a way without belittling the suburban life that so many of us lead. Although Harry Brunson forsakes his home in Downers Grove for what he thinks will be a hipper, cooler, more exciting life in Chicago, Fassnacht never veers into sneering judgment by mocking family life out in the ’burbs in the single-family detached home with the full, finished basement and the two-car garage and the big backyard. Indeed, some readers might even sense in these pages a little bit of love for the suburbs. Whether readers outside of the Chicago area will be able to feel the sense of place as well as local readers can is debatable, but, either way, Fassnacht has been careful to avoid formula or satire when drawing the setting of this ambitious story.
And ambitious it is. But The Good Family also is carefully observed, capturing people doing what people do as they stumble through life, making it up as they go along. In this story, pretty much everyone lands on their feet, bright futures ahead of them as they’ve worked through various issues with varying levels of success. Despite being on the longer side of many novels, the ending, however, actually feels a bit rushed and even a bit too easy, pretty much wrapped up all nice and tidy. This might leave some readers feeling like there’s little left to chew on, despite having devoured so much in so many pages. Even so, The Good Family is a compelling read, an authentic look at life and family and the lives we live, with and despite each other.
August 2015, St. Martin’s
$26.99, hardcover, 432 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen