Monday, July 24, 2017

Review: Nuclear Family by Susanna Fogel

Oh, how I love a good epistolary novel! And despite appearances otherwise (how many ways can you really change letters?), there are multiple ways to shape an epistolary novel. It can be letters, emails, notes, etc. from both the main character and secondary characters. It can be solely missives written by the main character. And it can be composed of letters and emails from others to one main character whose responses remain unwritten. Susanna Fogel's hilarious, crazy epistolary novel of a dysfunctional family, Nuclear Family, is the latter of these options.

Julie Fellers' extended Jewish family is nuts in its own special way. Over the course of twenty plus years, she receives letters, emails, and notes from many of the members of her family. Her father is a neurologist, her mother a therapist. She hears from them, as well as her grandmother, her immature younger sister, her mother's goddaughter, her stepmother, her precocious half-brother, her uncle, a couple of ghosts, a few inanimate objects that have cause to know her well, and more. The letters serve to illuminate everything that is going on in the family's life, revealing their authors with surprising clarity, as well as addressing Julie's life even though the reader never sees a response from her. The letters form the portrait of a fractured family but one that has stayed connected to each other, even when they drive each other round the bend.

Fogel manages to infuse healthy doses of humor, neuroses, perfect passive aggressiveness, self-centeredness, cluelessness, and family loyalty and love in the very distinct, well-developed voices she's created here. True emotions peek out from between the lines of all the characters' writings no matter what the actual content of the letter is and that's an impressive feat.  The inanimate objects and ghosts weighing on Julie's life may be a little bit over the top but since there's no other good way to introduce some of the things they know about Julie, they do serve a purpose.  Each letter is headed with a title that captures the tone and content of the following letter beautifully (and many of the headings will cause readers to snort with laughter). At first glance, there seems to be little plot driving the story beyond the passage of time and Julie's long deferred dream of writing a novel but when you reach the end and realize what Fogel has done, you will snicker with appreciation. Truly, the book is quite clever and a joy to read. Heaven forbid you recognize your own family in the book, but at least if you do, you'll know you're not alone and have the chance to laugh at the crazy other people are keeping hidden, except in their letters, too.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad you liked it! Rocketing up my non-current-season Macmillan reading list.


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