“I was 25,” Jeanne McCulloch writes in her memoir, All Happy Families, “a messy splatter of freckles across my nose the final badge of childhood. Just before sunset that afternoon, I would put on a vintage lace dress that swooped gently off the shoulder in a style I saw as reminiscent of Sophia Loren in her glory days and my mother saw as suggestive of a sale rack at a yard sale.”

It’s August 1983, and the author’s wedding to her college beau, Dean, is taking place at her family’s grand East Hampton beach house, meticulously orchestrated by her mother and the wedding planner, a woman named Ruth Ann. (“Though she was from Miami, my mother had various accents,” McCulloch relates, “and it was the British accent she deployed to speak to Ruth Ann.”) The table settings are perfect, the lilies of the valley delivered, a bagpiper has been hired to guide the guests from the garden ceremony to the dinner tent. Just one detail is off: The bride’s father, bullied by his wife to get sober before the wedding, has suffered a massive stroke. She instructs the hospital, no matter what happens that evening, not to call the house. “We’re having a party.”

“And so,” McCulloch writes, “a man with no underwear, in a plaid skirt, was going to bray on our front lawn at sunset as my father lay in a coma over in the next town.”

Photo: Nina Subin

A perfect storm of plans gone awry, McCulloch’s beachfront scene opens the way to a deep dive into family history, marriage, generational dissonance, social status and its loss, the blame game, and the flimsy life belt of ritual. Her title alludes to Tolstoy’s famous line in Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The families McCulloch writes about—she moves from her own to a dissection of Dean’s—strive hard, mainly through the Herculean efforts of the mothers, to create cohesion, identity, all appearance of harmony. Inevitably, it seems, these efforts are, if not doomed, at least fractured.

Meanwhile, McCulloch’s observations are priceless. It’s a little disappointing that she follows daughterly convention by saving her most savage lines for her mother while letting her father—a wealthy alcoholic who spends his time mastering ever-more obscure languages and writing stories for his children about an octopus who goes on eight-fisted bar crawls—off easy. But she is by turns piercingly vivid and and devastatingly amusing nonetheless, evoking the smell of her siblings’ take-out food in a hospital room where her father lies comatose, her husband summarizing their relationship in a gesture of leaves falling from a tree, and tour de force period pieces, such as the below description of her mother and her girlfriends:

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“Nancy and Mu regularly came with their husbands to visit us at the house by the sea, and the three women would do exercise classes together on the lawn, poking their pedicured pink toes into the air for a few minutes to tone their legs, then breaking for a cigarette.” Talking of cigarettes, the special emphatic language her mother has developed around smoking is skewered to perfection by the author. “This was cigarette smoking in ‘I just had to call and vent’ mode, the indignant inhale, the agitated exhale. . . . There was busy smoking—economic quick puffs in rapid succession, or busy with no hands free—speaking on the phone and writing, say, or sorting through place cards for a party, in which the cigarette was held in a clench between her lips. Then there was brooding smoking, the deep inhales and the long, whooshing exhales.”

There is much to enjoy here and much to think about. The most ritualistic and defining of family occasions—a wedding, a death, Christmas—are pulled apart and held up to the light. McCulloch shows all the pieces in turn and the past that led to now. In the midst of all these fragments straining for togetherness, there is, in fact, nuance and grace.

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