The famous opening sentence of Anna Karenina — "Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” — has been overused to the point of meaninglessness, like a word spoken aloud again and again until it becomes an oddity, stripped of its definition and reduced to a few ugly, alien syllables. The sentence is now a cliche that many people interpret as a license to spray their dysfunctional family history everywhere, in the form of memoir and Facebook post and standup routine.
But Tolstoy’s point was not that it’s better to be unhappy, or that unhappiness is more interesting than happiness. It’s important to remember that there are no happy families in Anna Karenina, or, really, anywhere in Tolstoy’s work. This lack of representation is not an accident.
What Tolstoy is saying in that sentence is that families only seem happy in general, when specificity is obscured by distance. But close-up, when you investigate the members of a family and observe the unique patterns of their lives, their unhappiness becomes distinct. The closer you are to a human, the more you notice the wrinkles and the unpleasant sounds and the small gouges in the flesh that have covered themselves over with shiny pink scars.
Some families aren’t even happy from a distance. You’ve probably encountered these people more than once: the kind of family you can hear hollering from the next block or two over. The young parents that everyone whispers about in concerned voices — “Is she okay with him?” — as they walk past at the grocery store. You could not even mistake them for a happy family from three miles away with a pair of binoculars. That’s the kind of family Megan Kruse writes about in her debut novel Call Me Home.
In one of the first chapters of Call Me Home, our narrator, a young woman named Lydia, explains what it’s like living in one of these gaudily unhappy homes: “At night I lay awake and listened to my parents talking. Not the words, just the sounds: ‘I love you, I hate you, I’m sorry.’” Lydia’s parents, Amy and Gary, are locked in an unhappy marriage. Gary regularly beats Amy, and he’s getting more violent with every outburst. To Lydia, the youngest, this routine takes the form of murmured noises heard through the walls of their home at night: love, anger, contrition. Always in that order, though the amount of time between each of the three stages could expand or contract, depending on the night.
He’s unsure if this is freedom or just the same old hell with a slightly different wallpaper.
Those three tones, love and hate and contrition, are repeated throughout Call Me Home as this exceptionally unhappy family fractures and skitters around the map and tries to make itself whole again. The book jumps around in time and alternates between the perspectives of Lydia, Amy, and Lydia’s older brother Jackson, a young man struggling with his sexuality in rural Washington state. Repeatedly, the mother and her children flee Gary, only to be found and delivered home like pieces of furniture. Gary’s unfettered loathing for his family is matched only by his desperate need to not be alone.
Kruse’s language is raw and naked and unadorned. At times, Call Me Home evokes the heartbreak and defiant innocence of Dorothy Allison’s resplendent Bastard Out of Carolina, only without the lilting lyricism of Allison’s southern twang. This is a Northwest Gothic, and the cadence and rhythm of Call Me Home is as plain as the accent-free TV newscaster English everyone in Seattle speaks. The willfully Northwestern attempt to shake free from regionalism only makes the heartbreak more obvious. Take, for example, this moment when Jackson unsuccessfully tries to warm himself in the sun:
It was a liar sun — or that was what they called it in Washington, in the late spring, when it seemed like maybe the long winter was over, and you could stand in the weak light in the afternoon and feel warm, until five or six when it was gone and the cold settled back in.
Even the weather tells lies, and retracts its promises, and makes you sorry.
Jackson’s story is the most successful of the three threads in Call Me Home, because he’s the one with the most to prove. As a young gay man out on his own in the world, he simultaneously longs to free himself from his father’s violence and fears the hatred of a world full of homophobia. If they were to learn Jackson’s secret, any of the unfamiliar men he works with at his first job could respond with physical violence, the way his father did. He’s transitioned from one specific threat to a million potential threats, and he’s unsure if this is freedom or just the same old hell with a slightly different wallpaper.
Call Me Home is raw and uncompromising and at times very hard to read. The violence in the book is sudden and pointless and perpetrated on the innocent. But it rewards a reader’s patience by finding the poetry at the heart of all that desperation, and the grace at the heart of its family. The thing about unhappy families is that if you scratch long enough at their endless litanies of aches and betrayals and heartbreaks, you will find some sort of love at the root of it all.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant