Elizabeth Crane has worked tirelessly over the years, teaching, writing stories, and We Only Know so Much should be her breakout. After all the cards are dealt in the book world, I have never been able to understand what makes a good hardcover and what should start in paper. Or for that matter what writer gets published and who stays an unknown. I know the novel has to be damn good to get published, that is for sure. This isn’t Ms. Crane’s first barbecue, she has a platform, and prior publications. I think this would make for a great hardcover, but I’m just one voice.
There is a wild and unclothed feeling to this story, a slovenly family dynamic that has gone gloriously sideways. It is not quite AM Homes Music for Torching, but it is close. No one dies on purpose, but there are quite a few moments where no one is more surprised by their surroundings than these characters, which leaves the reader curious to see what happens next.
Jean, the mother, or should I say, “the mother that is trying to be a mother” reminds me of a Gap model gone to seed. She’s spending her spare time in the bedroom of a fellow book lover, who goes David Foster Wallace. I was surprised, not by the act itself, but just how finely tuned the writing was that surrounded this part of the story. Jean is the star, the cover girl of this checkout aisle realism. Jean gets obsessed, to put it mildly. Eventually obsessed people crash and see the forest through the trees, but not Jean.
Gordon, Jean’s dry as an Arizona creek bed husband is lonely and finds a way out by trying to rekindle a past love. He flips his own crazy switch which is odd to see since it is so crazy. Jean and Gordon haven’t had sex in years, and this lack of release has turned their marriage toxic. Which begs the questions, why are they together? To keep the family together? Their daughter Priscilla is a reality show hopeful, and the squeaky wheel of the story. She can’t get along with anyone, not that she won’t get along, she physically can not subscribe to any other frequency but her own.
Ms. Crane alternates chapters, visiting each character, we hear countless tales of woe, each more mystifyingly than the last. I was swept off my feet by a very lighthearted but mean-in-spirit moment in a mall between Jean and a woman at a cosmetic counter.
Then there is Otis, who has a strange kind of love affair, involving crossword puzzles, and jelly beans. Ten year old Otis becomes a sounding board for his mother to bounce her love life off of. It’s a strange relationship which leaves me thinking that Jean can only relate to her son and Otis can only talk like an adult.
The suburbs have made Jean crazy. Why do people move to the suburbs? Does it’s own particular insanity offer a relief from the city? Why am I so compelled by this kind of writing? I live in the suburbs, but don’t really think it means more than that. Are there suburbs anymore? People stacked in tight, next to other people, stacking on top of…you get the idea.
The silver linings to this story comes in the form of two AARP’ers who are brought in as human reflectors. These feeble-minded corners of this scrumptious modern family are so curiously constructed, hailing with wisdom from the past, that it feels like a downer on the story when they both split like frozen kindling. The Grandfather, Theodore, and Vivian the ninety-eight-year-old matriarch, both offer the family their warped and Cheever-ish advice, but for the most part are dismissed as wastes of space by the rest of the family. This clan is drowning in its own self-inflicted misery. Or, is the suburban dream a nightmare?
This is beyond “careful what you wish for”. Ms. Crane doesn’t throw them a life jacket, but occasionally offers spirited and loving jabs with her oar, and then pours powdered sugar in the wounds of this dystopian-like horror. Like all good neighborhood gossip, I’m listening because it’s not only interesting but I am thrilled that this isn’t happening to me.