Unhappy families

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That’s how Tolstoy began Anna Karenina, his novel of infidelity and family unhappiness. And since each one of those unhappy families can so easily lay claim to its own unique sort of pain, the possibilities for novelists are, well, endless.

Charlotte Mendelson’s latest book—doing quite well in the U.K. and now available on this side of the pond—is about a family that is so busy seeming to be happy that it takes a while before the members figure out that they are, in fact, unhappy in very specific and idiosyncratic ways. When We Were Bad opens at the very moment of the final illusion of happiness: Rabbi Claudia Rubin, public figure, authority and author of tomes on family life, is watching her eldest son marry a woman of whom she heartily approves. What could be happier?

Then the always-good-as-gold son bolts from beneath the canopy, taking off on an adulterous escapade with the wife of another rabbi. From there on, the illusion unravels; unhappiness is unleashed and obsessions run rampant. The married elder sister is suddenly smitten with her younger sister’s girlfriend; the happily supportive husband is revealed to be conniving his way to his personal success, perhaps at the expense of his wife’s; the stoner younger brother is, well, a total stoner.

In spite of the “veddy” British sensibility, there are elements of every unhappy family here, especially in the construction of a public image—if only we act happy for long enough, we’ll be happy. Mendelson cuts right through the denial, though, in a narrative that rips from one “oh, no, she didn’t” moment to another. But the one thing we’re certain of is that each uniquely unhappy family loves each other in their own, often self-sacrificing way.

Don’t expect much in the way of self- sacrifice from the family in Erika Mailman’s second novel, The Witch’s Trinity. Mailman, whose debut novel was a mystery starring a 19-year-old prostitute set in Gold Rush San Francisco, offers up a sophomore effort set even further back—the 16th century. Famine has come to Tierkinddorf, a village in one of the German principalities, and after a couple of years, it starts to wear down even a well-adjusted family.

But the main character, Güde, doesn’t have a family you’d call “well-adjusted.” In fact, her daughter-in-law locks her out of the cottage, hoping she’ll wander off and freeze to death so they won’t need to feed her. Güde watches her entire community, including her family, break down because of hunger, and just when it doesn’t seem as if it can get any worse, it does. A witch-hunting friar arrives from Rome with a copy of The Malleus Maleficarum, and before you can say “broom,” witches are being pointed out.

Güde’s daughter-in-law takes advantage of every opportunity, from gathering firewood to burn Güde’s condemned friend to denouncing her own mother-in-law. But alas, witch hunts tend to take on a life of their own, and when people are hungry, compassion and sensibility are a long way from their first concern.

Perhaps Mailman is a bit optimistic to think that anything resembling a happy ending can be dredged from the dysfunction that is superstitious fear. Still, the tension between the better angels of compassion and family and the dark forces of fear and religious mania keeps the story moving along, with descriptions of starvation that make it all quite plausible.

Happy endings? Well, it depends on your definition of “happy.” But no one jumps under a train.