I’ve heard tales about families who get along well, have each others backs and actually look forward to seeing each other. Mind you, I’ve never met any of these mythical families, and I most certainly don’t belong to one. Apparently neither does Grant Ginder, because he has managed to perfectly capture the lying, backbiting, passive-aggressiveness of the modern dysfunctional family in excruciating and sometimes hilarious detail.
The People We Hate At The Wedding seems like a simple premise. An older sister is getting married and she wants her family to attend. How do you spin a whole novel out of that? You add in years of jealousy, frustration, hidden secrets, addiction and loneliness and multiply them by a cross-section of fractured, broken and hopeless relationships.
When British Eloise invites American half-siblings Alice and Paul to her fairytale nuptials, her wedding becomes a catalyst for life-changing drama. All of the characters here are stuck, from bereft, pleasantly pill-numbed Alice, to grieving Paul in a bad relationship and a soul-sucking job, to their mother who believes the life she deserved was stolen from her.
The younger siblings are frozen somewhere in adolescence, resentful of the hoity-toity life Eloise was granted by her rich father, while they grew up in comfortable but middle class obscurity. Eloise’s clumsy efforts to help them or woo them with her inheritance only serve to make them grow more disgusted and distant.
Alice lost a pregnancy and a job she was passionate about, replacing them with a meaningless position and an affair with her married boss. Paul lost his father, who he doesn’t realize never loved him anyway, and spends his life devotedly following a boyfriend who doesn’t deserve him. Their mother is also in a sort of stasis, pining for a time when she felt desired and refined.
As we get closer to the wedding, cracks begin to show. Paul’s journey to something approaching self-awareness contains some of the most laugh-out-loud moments of the book. When a fake baby crunches into the nose of his screaming, berating boss who just called him a fairy, I admit I cheered out loud. Later on when he drunkenly pees on his father in a quaint country pub after having described his first three-way sex experience to his half-sister’s soon-to-be in-laws, I definitely guffawed.
And if you want to know the context of all that, you’ll just have to read the book.
Amid the humor and the pain, there is a lesson here. Not the pat, Hallmark-card sort of lesson, where all we need is love and a puppy to set things right. But a more realistic sort of understanding that families are complex, intertwined organisms. Sometimes they suffocate us even in their distance, but they are also capable of holding us together in a way nothing else can.
They may make you crazy, they may make you cringe, but it’s still good to have someone on your side willing to pee on anyone who messes with you.
The People We Hate At The Wedding by Grant Grinder will be available in June 2017 from Flatiron Books.