Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Every Happy Family by Sarah Stovell

‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way’. Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy

I’ve been wanting to try a Sarah Stovell novel for the last couple of years, because it’s a name that’s come up with other bloggers as someone I would enjoy. This story had me gripped to the very last page. This is the history of a family, but told like a thriller. We know that one central incident is the lynchpin of the whole story, explaining the family’s geography, personalities and dynamics with each other. Yet the incident isn’t laid bare for the reader. We must go back and forth in time, with the truth only revealed in short bursts and from different family member’s perspectives. Minnie is an academic, a professor of sociology and women’s studies and is married to Bert, another academic. Minnie is also the matriarch of the Plenderleith family: Owen, his wife Sophie and daughter Layla; Lizzie who lives in a platonic partnership with Tamsin and has a daughter, Ruby; then there’s baby Jessie and her wife Anna who have had two babies in quick succession. For the first time, Minnie will have her entire family under one roof for Christmas. This is a rare occasion because Owen lives in Australia and everyone leads very busy lives. Plus there is a tension at the centre of this family, something they never talk about, which has led to misunderstanding, distance and fear. Fear that if the incident is brought into the open and talked about, the family might implode. However, Owen hasn’t brought his wife to England and his teenage girlfriend Nora is in the village, sorting out her father’s house after his death. Could Nora be the catalyst that for an explosive Christmas?

The depth of characterisation in these family members is brilliant. I found myself understanding each family member as I read their section of the narrative. Even where their point of view clashed completely with someone else, or where they’re acting from a complete misunderstanding, I could empathise with their position. I fell in love with Lizzie, probably because I am overweight, nearing middle age and have an abusive relationship behind me. There was an instant understanding of her emotional need for calm, quiet and meditation. I also understood her medication, whether it was food or a prescription from the GP. Lizzie left a physically abusive relationship when her daughter Ruby was 16, with her self-esteem and sense of self eroded almost beyond repair. Lizzie is the jolly, overweight sister who jokes about her love of cake and seems outwardly confident, someone who owns her choices. Underneath though, is a animal that stays curled into a ball waiting for the next kick. Perhaps unable to trust men, or even trust her own judgement, she has found solace in a platonic family unit with friend Tamsin and although they perhaps don’t fully understand it, the family accepts it as a life choice and Tamsin is very much part of the family. Twenty years earlier, when Owen started dating Nora, Lizzie made friends with this unusual girl. Nora is the opposite of Lizzie, she looks like a fragile waif that you would want to feed and look after. Having lost her mother at a young age, Nora only had her father and it wasn’t an ideal relationship, so when Owen started bringing her home, his family became Nora’s family too. Minnie is impressed with her son’s choice, because she’s not into fashion or anything superficial, she’s bright, idealistic and wants to change the world. She’s going to spend summers working on conservation projects in different parts of the world and she follows through on her dreams. She might seem frail, but she’s determined and not scared of stepping out into the world alone. She’s so different to Owen but they have a connection that’s natural, deep and all encompassing.

I really did understand Minnie, a woman with so much education, intelligence and personal experience. She is the centre of the incident and takes so much of the blame for what happened, even though her point of view isn’t unreasonable. Minnie is on her second marriage, her first was to Owen and Lizzie’s father who was a drunk. Minnie was trying to hold down an academic position, run a household and two children, but always on tenterhooks for the next crisis to hit. Would she come home from work and find their father had hurt himself, given away the family car or worse? When he died, it was more of a relief than anything but Minnie was burned out. I could see immediately that Minnie was one of life’s ‘copers’. She’s used to picking up the pieces of whatever disaster her family members bring home, always without complaint and assuring them it will be ok. Holding the anxiety and responsibility for everyone creates burn out and resentment. When is it someone else’s turn to hold it together? She just wants one opportunity to fall apart. So when the big incident happened Minnie decided this was one mess she would not be clearing up. The fall out from this decision will last twenty years, compounded by miscommunication, layers of regret and grief, and the blame never apportioned out loud.

When trauma isn’t processed and discussed it grows and can come out in the most unexpected ways. Like on Christmas Day, when at least three generations of the family bring the trauma into the present. I loved how the author brought all those strands together to create this tension filled and momentous day. There’s all the usual stuff; prepping the veg, opening the presents and playing games. Between the celebrations, we’re told parts of the story by those who were there and those who are living in the aftermath. Even the grandchildren are affected, because things that are never spoken about can be misunderstood and blown out of proportion. The sections become shorter and faster towards the end, driving then tension and compelling you to keep reading. This is a brilliant, emotional and addictive read that’s a must read for this spring and would make a great TV thriller.

Published by HQ 30th March 2023

Meet the Author

Sarah lives in Northumberland, England, with her family. She teaches creative writing at Lincoln University. During the Covid pandemic, she was unable to write because her children kept interrupting her, so she started baking instead. She now spends her time writing, teaching, hanging out with her kids, baking fine patisserie and trying to believe her luck.


Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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