Date Published: June 12, 2011
ISBN: 978- 0062099471
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 3 out of 5
Book Summary: Jean Copeland, an emotionally withdrawn wife and mother of two, has taken a secret lover—only to lose him in a moment of tragedy that leaves her reeling. Her husband, Gordon, is oblivious, distracted by the fear that he’s losing his most prized asset: his memory. Daughter Priscilla (a pill since birth—don’t get us started) is talking about clothes, or TV, or whatever, and hatching a plan to extend her maddening reach to all of America. Nine-year-old Otis is torn between his two greatest loves: crossword puzzles and his new girlfriend.
At the back of the house, grandfather Theodore is in the early throes of Parkinson’s disease. (And he’s fine with it—as long as they continue to let him walk the damn dog alone.) And Vivian, the family’s ninety-eight-year-old matriarch, is a razor-sharp grande dame who suffers no fools…and still harbors secret dreams of her own.
With empathy, humor, and an unforgettable voice, Elizabeth Crane reveals what one family finds when everyone goes looking for meaning in all the wrong places.
My Thoughts: Storylines about dysfunctional, flawed characters are some of my favorite kinds of books. Dysfunction alone doesn’t suffice to make a good book, of course. The book has to be well-written, the characters need to be well-developed, interesting and relatable and there has to be a good story. I was really looking forward to this book because, as you can tell if you read the summary of the book, above, there are many extremely flawed characters in We Only Know So Much. When I didn’t connect with any of the characters, I was very disappointed. I felt sympathy for a couple of them occasionally, laughed a few times and was completely fed up with Gordon but, sadly, something was missing for me. We Only Know So Much is narrated by an outsider, somebody who seems to know the family but isn’t one of them and proceeds to sit down and tell us about the Copelands. I felt as if I was reading a report or newspaper article and, although it was interesting, the story also felt distant and removed. The book lacked the strong emotional connection I look for in my reading.
The Copeland Family is intensely dysfunctional. The family, as a whole, has almost completely disintegrated. They function so poorly were complete strangers to observe the six individuals out in public at, for instance, an amusement park, the strangers most likely wouldn’t realize they not only know each they’re related. The Copelands have dinner together most nights. These family dinners would be laughable if they weren’t so sad. It’s not silent around the Copeland Family dinner table. On the contrary, very often several family members are talking about things such as, how their day went, a dream they had or they’re sharing a memory or plans for the future. The problem is almost nobody at the dinner table is listening to anyone else. They’re just talking to the air. Otis, the youngest member of the family and his 75-year old grandfather, Theodore, who is struggling with the onset of Alzheimer’s often try to follow show an interest in whatever the other family members are talking about. They’re frequently ignored or become confused thereby irritating Vivian or Priscilla or whomever was talking.
The dysfunction, it appears, begins with the oldest Copeland generation, Vivian, and flows down. Vivian, the 98-year old grandmother of Gordon, great grandmother to Priscilla and Otis is still keen, observant and very self-centered. If the subject being discussed is Vivian and her life she’s talkative and interested. Otherwise she’s totally bored and uninterested Vivian always wants to be in control and her control issues extend to her emotions. Since a very young age, she’s practiced keeping her emotions to herself. She believes any outward display of emotions is unseemly. Vivian’s standard response whether being told someone stubbed their toe or someone died, including her husband, is “I see”.
Gordon’s always been self-centered even when he and Jean first met. She even noticed it, but ignored her gut. They’ve married for more than 20 years but they haven’t been a team or partners for many years. They’re the responsible adults in the home who are supposed to oversee the household responsibilities including caring for Theodore and Vivian. Jean does the food shopping and prepares the meals but it’s unclear how many of the other responsibilities are met. It’s remarkable that the house hasn’t fallen down around them or Theodore hasn’t wandered off never to be found again. A caretaker was hired to keep an eye on Theodore but, more often than not, he’s on his own with the dog, Mott, his only companion. Gordon fears he’s losing his memory and has become obsessed with finding out the truth. It’s all he thinks about or focuses on recently. He’s so self-centered it doesn’t occur to him how upsetting and frightening the onset of Alzheimer’s may have been for Theodore.
Gordon and Jean are no longer in touch verbally, physically or emotionally. Jean doesn’t seem to love Gordon anymore and, although he still loves Jean, Gordon doesn’t show it. so. They’re story isn’t all that remarkable. Jean was newly graduated from college when she met Gordon. Gordon, a few years older, slightly arrogant and a know-it-all about many things, appeared worldly in the eyes of a small-town young woman. Gordon has a tendency to lecture on anything, from apples to zippers, that comes up in conversation. He also occasionally delivers thinly-veiled insults on things like Jean’s cooking, while ‘lecturing‘. Jean’s solution when she couldn’t tolerate Gordon’s lectures anymore, was to stop talking to him completely unless absolutely necessary. Gordon hasn’t seriously noticed yet that his wife hasn‘t really talked to him in years.
Gordon is so out of touch with Jean, he’s completely unaware she’s having an affair. A growing unhappiness over the years along with a feeling that she squandered her potential by marrying Gordon caused her to become depressed and self-centered. She joined a book club where she met an intelligent, caring man who made her very happy and showed an interest in her. I felt a lot of sympathy for Jean when her relationship ends in tragedy although my sympathy waned when her focus for the rest of the book is the tragedy and why it happened.
Jean and Gordon are the most flawed and dysfunctional in their role as parents. In some marriages, when one parent is going through a difficult time and has checked out for a bit, the other, recognizing that their partner needs some time, supports them by stepping up their efforts and responsibilities. Of course, this doesn’t happen in Gordon and Jean’s marriage because, even in the early years, Gordon was too focused on himself to notice if something was bothering Jean. I also didn’t get the impression that Gordon was much of a ‘hands on’ parent, more like an observer. At 19, Priscilla doesn’t need a parent available to do things for her but Otis is only nine. He needs at least one parent to care for, advise and guide him. During We Only Know So Much, Gordon is almost completely absent from Otis’ life despite being physically present. Jean still performs mom duties such as picking Otis up at school and making sure he has plenty to eat. When Otis develops his first crush and tries to talk to his mom about it to sort out his confusion, ease his anxiety and get some advice, I was wishing Jean was as absent as Gordon. She totally drops the ball as a parent. I was completely shocked by the conversations (more like lectures!) she has with Otis when he asks her questions about his crush.
I hoped Otis would ask his older sister, Priscilla but she’s not very nice to him. In fact, Priscilla’s not too nice to anyone. On the very first page of We Only Know So Much we’re told clearly, in no uncertain words, “...Priscilla is a bitch. Or at least a brat. An extreme brat.” Apparently, she’s been like this since she was a little girl. It’s obvious as the novel progresses, Priscilla is unhappy, restless and confused. She has no real direction in life but seems to want one. An interview for a reality TV show initially upsets and concerns her but eventually provides her the direction she’s been looking for. Priscilla was the surprise of this book for me. She matures and changes through the course of the book, in little ways at first, and then in much bigger, terrific, ways.
I didn’t feel a connection to Priscilla but if her story been a bigger part of the book and she was more open and personal I think I would have connected with her. The questions I had about Priscilla multiplied the closer I came to the end of this book. I was curious about how she was raised, what her childhood was like and if she was encouraged to take an interest in any activities or hobbies. Otis shows the potential to be a math genius and he creates his own crossword puzzles, two things Gordon and Jean either don‘t know about him or show an interest in. Otis isn’t effected much by his parents ignoring him but another child, such as Priscilla, might become upset and angry being treated that way. The more I thought about the book and Priscilla, the more I felt her unhappiness and bitchiness may very well have been a result of disenchantment with her parents, especially Gordon. Priscilla clearly has little respect for Gordon, something a child shouldn’t feel towards a parent at any time. Her relationship with Jean is better but there are also some issues there.
The narrator of We Only Know So Much provides a lot of information and background on the Copeland Family members but there’s even more left out. The narrator, instead, of delivering only the straight-forward facts of the story, free of any bias or opinion, inserts personal opinions, sometimes, about various Copeland family members or the situations they found themselves in, throughout the narrative. These occasional breaks from the strict reporting, sometimes funny, other times poignant, felt a little awkward to me at first, but once I knew these diversions would pop up occasionally, they proved to be a good tension breaker. The narrator also, skews the facts, at times, for or against members of the family, most harshly against Priscilla. The narrator’s voice, when writing about Priscilla, is often, more emphatic and acerbic with sharper edges as if to emphasize what feels like a bias against Priscilla. We Only Know So Much was an intriguing story at times but, unfortunately, didn’t totally work for me. I think there’s a lot of potential in this book and I liked Elizabeth Crane’s writing so I will be watching to see what she publishes next.
To find out more about Elizabeth Crane and We Only Know So Much visit her Website, Facebook and Twitter
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review We Only Know So Much and to Harper Perennial for a copy of this book.