Friday, January 18, 2013

Review: All the Lonely People by Jess Riley

Navigating family can be tricky in the extreme.  We share a history and they know us intimately, which means that they also know the most effective ways to get under our skin and pick at us.  And sometimes, although we are stuck with them because they are family, they are people we would never choose to have in our lives, mean and hateful and nasty.  How do you create a caring family to support you when your borth family has turned out so badly?  Do we need a family around us, either one of blood or one of our own making?  Jess Riley's new novel, All the Lonely People, tackles the thorny questions of what constitutes a family, what holds us together, what tears us apart, and what we owe each other.

Opening the first Thanksgiving following Jaime's mother's death from ovarian cancer six months prior, Jaime and husband Erik are gathered with her older brother Clint, his wife and daughter, and a few other relatives when Clint lets fly one of his usual mean-spirited and hurtful comments.  It all degenerates from there with Jaime completely gobsmacked and devastated by the depth of intentional nastiness and Clint completely unaware and uncaring that he is truly a bully and a jerk.  But this prize of a brother isn't Jaime's only remaining family.  Lucky woman has a remote, disapproving, high-achieving sister named Gwen and an estranged father who communicates with her maybe twice a year if she's lucky.  Jaime and Erik have been unable to have children themselves despite their longing for a baby and Erik's family consists only of his father, who is sinking into the fog of demetia.  Jaime has some wonderful close friends but they are spread out geographically and busy in their own lives.  So when one of her friends makes an off the cuff joking suggestion about advertising on Craigslist for a new family for Christmas, Jaime slowly comes to the conclusion that she is going to do just that.  And she does, ultimately choosing four other lonely souls to become her new family.

The new family Jaime creates, each lonely and searching for connection for a variety of different reasons, is a motley assortment of completely unique, entertaining, and surprising individuals loaded down by their own emotional baggage.  She gets absorbed by their lives and situations in order to try and block out the pain of estrangement from her own family, her own severe disappointment not only over her inability to conceive but also her perception of husband Erik's response to this, and her ongoing grief at the loss of her mother.  But it is also through these perfect strangers that she learns to let go of her resentment and view her biological family through clearer eyes and come to terms with who they each are, who she is, and what they all, ultimately mean to each other.

The characters here are mostly wonderful (except Clint who is a total tosser) as they grapple with some quite serious issues.  They are wistful and funny, charming and devoted, supportive and eccentric.  Jaime herself is good-hearted and sympathetic, even when she has trouble recognizing that she's got the best family in the world right at her side in her husband Erik.  Some of the characters are more interesting and fleshed out than others but don't you always like some relatives better than others?  Jaime's old friends seem to be given somewhat short shift in the story though.  And the plot moves along not entirely evenly.  The ending is a bit too easy, especially for anyone who has faced contentious family situations or estrangements from close relatives.  I did thoroughly enjoy the little snippets of Madison that were included in the book as they brought back memories of the year we lived there.  Over all, this is a humorous novel and a quick read.  Anyone who has that one (or more) relative who makes you want to change your name and avoid family reunions or even just skip the Christmas dinner drama will recognize a little bit of themselves here.

Thanks to the author for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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