Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review: We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane

In Elizabeth Crane's debut novel, We Only Know So Much, the Copeland family is quite possibly the most hilariously self-involved group of people I've read about in a very long time. I was going to say they are a family but aside from blood relationships and habit, there's very little holding them together as a family at this point. They are quirky, eccentric, and dysfunctional but eminently entertaining.

Four generations of Copelands live together in one large home and every one of them is so focused on themselves and their own problems that they don't see their family relationships completely imploding. Vivian is the matriarch of the family and at 98 years old, although mentally still fully present, she is uninterested in anything that doesn't center around her or her life. Her son Theodore is failing both physically and mentally, stricken with Parkinson's but is still stubborn and sneaky, wanting to maintain a semblance of autonomy in his life. His son Gordon is a pompous, pontificating blowhard who regularly lectures the family on any topic they mention but he is suddenly terrified by the thought that his mind, his most prized possession, is deteriorating. His wife Jean, emotionally unavailable to her family, has been having an affair with a man in her book club who gives her everything Gordon doesn't (and may never have). Contented and fulfilled feeling in her infidelity, she is rocked when her lover hangs himself, finding herself obsessed with the knowledge that as intimately as she thought she knew him she didn't know he was depressed which must mean that somehow his final act reflects on her. Nineteen year old daughter Priscilla is undirected and narcissistic (but then look at her great-grandmother) and her biggest goal in life is to land a part in a reality tv show. Nine year old Otis is just a nice kid but he's falling in love with a classmate and that's enough to make anyone nutty but especially so when his parents barely notice his existence. His mother only spends her time answering Otis's questions about love in terms of her own adulterous affair with the result that Otis understands that lovers kill themselves. And his father lectures and instructs him instead of actually hearing Otis and his newfound uncertainty.

Written in a funny, sarcastic tone, this tale of a family so individually wrapped up in their separate lives is narrated by an unnamed observer who has incomplete access to the thoughts of each of the characters in the ensemble. In addition to this limited access, the narrator shares his or her opinions on each character with the reader directly, giving the narration an air of snarky gossip being passed along. The story follows each character by turns, speculating about what is driving each personal drama and the ways in which these are unacknowledged by the others in the family but also the ways in which these dramas impact the Copelands as a whole, even if they remain ignorant of the origins.

As the story unfolds, each character sinks farther into his and her own self-centered diversion. It is hard to sympathize with any of them besides perhaps Otis or maybe Theodore but they are all highly entertaining to read about. There is not much of a plot here; each individual's dawning realization that they are not in fact their own island is enough to drive the tale. Personal growth through caring and engaging in each other's concerns again is the heart of the novel and watching the characters come to understand this to varying degrees and with varying degrees of success is eminently satisfying. I found myself reading this with a wry grin on my face even as I winced when I recognized some of the traits of these characters in myself and my own family. A fast, enjoyable read, this will remind readers to "just connect," a worthy reminder any time.

For more information about Elizabeth Crane and the book visit her website, her Facebook page or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. I've adored Elizabeth Crane's short stories and am thoroughly enjoying this novel. I hope to finish it today.

  2. This sounds like something I would enjoy very much. It's always good to look at others' dysfunctional relationships and double-check one's own against them. ;-)

  3. I definitely think this book would make me appreciate my own crazy family even more!

    Thanks for being on the tour.


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