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Tolstoy was Wrong: It’s the Unhappy Families That are Alike

Tolstoy famously begins Anna Karenina with the line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  I just finished reading Mercury, by Margot Livesey, reviewed here in the New York Times, having read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth last semester, reviewed here in the Times, and while it is more intricate a novel, it seems to me that together these stories show unhappy families to be exactly alike.  People hold secrets.  People stop listening to one another.  People don’t see the needs of those closest to them.  People resent one another.  This is what makes an unhappy family.

The mystery is what makes a happy family.

In her book, Gaga FeminismJack Halberstam comments on how:

romantic comedy wants to, needs to, has to produce obstacles in order to make love seem hard won, worthwhile, and well, romantic.  Romance, it seems, loves an obstacle (“The course of true love never did run smooth” as the Bard once said, prescriptively I think, rather than descriptively, given how much mileage Shakespearean comedies themselves gain out of obstacles to the marriage of the principals.)  For gay people, of course, obstacles are the name of the game, and they abound in the form of sanctioned and unsanctioned homophobia (You can’t do that!); sexual curiosity (Why do you want to do that?); outrage (That’s illegal! Please don’t do that!); and disgust (Oh, must you? And in public?).  But for straight people, the obstacles to true love must be created, crafted, nurtured, and then quickly discarded as soon as an hour and twenty minutes [he’s speaking mostly of television and film] of fun has been had by all. (18-19)

Halberstam is concerned that the depictions of happily resolved straight romantic relationships involve the artifice of obstacles in a world that is pretty much set up to make their relationships possible.  Yet the story always ends at the resolution, perhaps because we assume there is no story to follow, happy families being alike and all.  Livesey and Patchett are writing dramas not comedies–things don’t end up well–but I think Halberstam’s point stands.

halberstam-gagafeminismThe dissolution is not due to fantastic and interesting obstacles but to generic dissatisfaction.  When authors of family drama want to write about the dissolution of a straight middle-class white family, the story remains the same.  If we imagine that obstacles are required to make the romance real, Hollywood makes them up over and over again to make it seem like something had to be done for us to celebrate the success of the relationship.  The stories we inherit make happy families the same in this vein, but now we come to find that unhappy families are alike in the same way.

Tolstoy thought the unhappy families were unique, but I’m beginning to think it is the happy family that is unique.  If our art, popular or fine, reflects and constructs our social existence, then it seems that what is really impossible for us to think well is what a happy family looks like.  The romantic comedy ends when the couple gets together.  The dramatic novel begins when everything is falling apart.  I don’t believe that there is no drama to the happy family, but I suspect that just as the romantic comedy requires inventing obstacles for two people that the world seems to conspire to join together, the family drama becomes trite in the repetition of the tropes that drive people apart.

I guess this is why I finished Mercury annoyed.  A well-off family falls apart because a woman is obsessed with a horse in her efforts to finally fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a competitive rider.  Even in this very vanilla normal family, the obstacle is in her resistance to being a happy satisfied wife, and the narrator (for most of it) husband is upset that his life has been upended and we are supposed to be sympathetic.  Meh.  It got me thinking about what this novel would look like if the author wanted to pursue this same line and make the family happy.  Part of the conflict is between the sense that the life the world expects you to find happy fails to be happy, and that happiness has to fit into the expectations of your social world.

Halberstam recommends a turn toward a kind of feminism that has “gone gaga” in its effort to pursue alternative futures, alternative social worlds.  That would seem to be the place for the happy families to be unique.  The challenge would be to recognize the happy in that uniqueness.

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