“A WOMAN WALKS into the sea.”
So begins Jeanne McCulloch’s shimmering gem of a memoir, All Happy Families, which elegantly recounts the unraveling of three unions: her first marriage, that of her parents, and that of her first in-laws. The memoir also tells the story of a summer house in East Hampton, New York, where all three marriages intersected, and which has itself been dismantled.
McCulloch has had a long and storied career in publishing, first as a managing editor at the Paris Review, then at Tin House, where she was a senior editor and the founding editorial director of Tin House Books, and currently as co-founding director of the Todos Santos Writers Workshop. I have known McCulloch personally since we were both in college, and she was my editor for an interview I conducted for the Paris Review. Although she has written many articles and essays over the years, this is her first book. It was worth waiting for. I don’t imagine McCulloch could have told this story as completely, or as well, until now.
I met McCulloch’s mother on a few occasions — she was charming, well-read, high-spirited at times, yet worried about her children — and even visited the McCulloch summer house back in the 1980s, when a large part of the story is set. To me, it seemed like a dream of summer. I can certainly report that McCulloch’s descriptions ring true to time and place, but I did not know what was playing out behind the scenes, then and there.
All Happy Families is so much more than snapshots in a family album. It is an unflinching look at the darkness that tears at lives that appear, at first, so filled with promise and joy. They are like kites being flown at the beach: pulling ever upward before suddenly crashing into the surf. McCulloch’s great-grandfather was a business partner of Thomas Edison, and, as a result, her father was wealthy enough that he did not need to work for a living; after graduating from Yale he traveled the world, served in the OSS during World War II (the precursor to the CIA), and eventually became president of The English Speaking Union, whose monthly newsletter he published and edited. He was what McCulloch calls a hyperpolyglot — a person who speaks an astonishing number of languages. He spoke nine fluently and was capable of holding a conversation in another 10. But, as McCulloch details, alcoholism ruled his life. He spent the mornings at home, then dressed and went out for the afternoon, before returning in time for his childrens’ return from school. He would have his scotch in hand when they entered the house, and the glass would remain filled until nighttime. McCulloch’s parents led an active and colorful social life — one in which her mother was forced to gloss over her husband’s alcohol-induced embarrassments. McCulloch and her two sisters also took as a given their father’s occasional, and then more frequent, lapses.
Without giving away the book’s most powerful moments, McCulloch’s father’s drinking was responsible for the dissolution of her parent’s marriage, and would be responsible, in great part, for his dramatic early death. McCulloch’s mother was, in many ways, the bulwark of the family, convinced of her rectitude, the way of the world, and the appearances she wanted her family to maintain. McCulloch does not stint in her portrait of her mother’s strong will. Here is how she describes her:
My mother was tall, taller than I; her face had not softened with age but grown more angular, more defined. Her skin was delicate, aged over time like a sheet washed and dried too many times in the sun. Though now slightly stooped, she still strode with the assurance of someone who held herself strong against the world, used to getting her own way.
Gradually, McCulloch’s story broadens to include Dean, her first husband, and Raymond and Helen, her in-laws from Maine, who are as bound by their own customs and ways (including the proper recipe for a successful New England clambake) as the McCullochs are in theirs.
With this cast of characters in mind, one might ask, why should we sympathize with the problems of the wealthy? However, All Happy Families transcends its setting amid the bearers of white privilege to become a universal work about loss — the loss we all feel as we recall summers past, marriages broken, parents in decline. It captures the double vision of retrospect, the way we, as adults, see things clearly both as we believed them to be and as they really were.
What is especially striking about McCulloch’s narrative is its lack of anger; although she in no way minimizes her parents’ individual faults, she is remarkably generous in her portrayals of them. We get the charm of her eccentric father, who takes the family on trips abroad where he can deploy his languages and teach his children words and phrases in each. McCulloch’s father also wrote stories for her, about an Octopus named Franklin, who spends much of his time in a bar, drinking rounds of drinks with one clasped in each of his eight tentacles. One of the Franklin stories is included in the memoir in its entirety. The stories are strange, not really for children — or only in the way that Edward Gorey or Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler) is for children — but they express her father’s love of language and a quirkiness that seems of another time. McCulloch also devotes several scenes to the enduring bond she enjoyed with her mother, which reflect their shared experience, despite their differences, as sisters, brides, wives, and mothers:
Together we stood side by at the window and watched the waves break in even curls of foam. The glinting sunlight made crazy diamonds across the water.
“Look,” she [McCulloch’s mother] said then. “At the end of the day, that’s what we do. We march on. We don’t dwell. If I’ve done my job right, that’s what I’ve taught you. There’s always tomorrow. Right?”
McCulloch’s decision to include her in-laws and their marriage as part of the narrative adds an extra dimension to the book. On the one hand it presents a counterpoint, an outside standard against which to assess her family. On the other hand, when Dean’s parents’ marriage also fails, it goes to bolster the book’s central Tolstoyan contention: all seemingly happy families have their own stories of personal loss.
In a recent book appearance at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California, McCulloch described memoir as using the techniques of fiction to tell a personal narrative. One fiction-like element in the book is the summer house itself, which serves as the connective tissue for all the narratives, across time, and becomes a character that suffers its own demise.
What elevates All Happy Families to the realm of literature is the quality of McCulloch’s style. Each sentence is beautifully crafted, at times calling to mind the writing of the late James Salter, whom McCulloch credits as inspiration in the acknowledgments. The prose has the same quality as the light in East Hampton — clear, bright, with moments of sharp focus and stretches shrouded in the gauzy, late afternoon haze of reflection:
When we were young, all summer mothers used to stand at the rail station on Friday evening waiting for the train from Penn Station, the weekly Cannonball, as it was called, to deliver the fathers from the city. I remember the mothers in their brightly colored flowery shifts, hair frosted silvery in the manner of the model Jean Shrimpton and freshly done in neat arrangements behind matching headbands […] Though my sisters and I had no father working in the city during the week, sometimes we would go along with friends — it was always a special occasion …
In All Happy Families, a woman walks into the sea, and a writer comes into her own.