On a Perilous Dune

By Ellen T. White
Jeanne McCulloch Nina Subin

“All Happy Families”
Jeanne McCulloch
Harper Wave, $25.99

Once upon a time in a land not very far away, Anglo-Saxon Protestants ruled. They lived in vast houses, often characterized by their gentle decline, resulting in a suitable “shabby” elegance. True, money was no object, but that money was suspect unless earned generations before and spent with a slow hand. Tribe members knew each other instinctively; when in doubt a faint Mayflower inflection was the tell, along with references to island summers, Ivy League schools, and friends in far-flung cities who they’d always known. There were rules — among them, marry within the tribe and stick to it no matter what the cost.

In her new memoir, “All Happy Families,” Jeanne McCulloch plunges readers into this rarified world on the day of her first wedding in East Hampton on Aug. 13, 1983. On that clear morning, the cousins frolicked down on the beach in front of the McCullochs’ rambling, shingled house. An army of hired help rose to meet the grand occasion at a wedding planner’s command. The mother of the bride, Pat, despaired over her daughter’s hair, dress, and choice of husband. Pat had lobbied for the law school graduate with the “good” genes. “Please, for me, just think about it,” she had implored Jeanne at an earlier date. “Dearie, that profile could be on a Greek coin. Strong chin. Nothing out of place.”

Along with the bridegroom, Dean, much was out of place on Jeanne’s wedding day. At Pat’s insistence, the bride’s father, John, had sworn off booze “cold turkey” in the lead-up to the occasion — this after a lifetime of drinking, which began poetically each morning with a can of Budweiser at breakfast. The sudden withdrawal had triggered a massive stroke. In the Southampton Hospital I.C.U., John lay in a coma from which he was not likely to emerge. Pat frantically reached the doctor in the hours before the wedding in a scene that will take your breath away for its casual heartlessness. 

“Why don’t you stop talking and listen to me,” said Pat, who the doctor mistakenly assumed was looking for reassurance. “If anything happens to my husband this evening, do not call this house. Do not. Do you hear me?” she said. “We cannot be disturbed.” Pat demanded a glorious day: “We’re going to get through this thing with grace and style even if it kills us.”

“All Happy Families” is essentially a memoir of loss — notably, the loss of the author’s father at the outset of her story, but also the gradual unraveling of a fantasy. “I had erected a white picket fence in my mind around Dean and his family,” she writes, “. . . and I wanted to be inside that fence.” But in breaking with her tribe and marrying “normal,” Ms. McCulloch had to swallow a bitter truth. Each unhappy family is indeed unhappy in its own way, to hark back to the Tolstoy quote she includes in the opening of the book. But it can be hard to see past the smokescreen of domestic harmony that every family strives to promote to the world at large.

Weaving flashbacks and forwards into the story, Ms. McCulloch focuses on the five years in which her marriage to Dean Jackson slowly evaporated. Curiously, she floats above her narrative as if in a dream, unable and perhaps unwilling to affect the outcome at the time. Dean is little more than a shadowy figure, a onetime college roommate who morphed into marriage material. When, later, the author refers to her broken heart, it’s hard to believe that such an absence of passion amounted to more than a scratch. No gnashing of teeth or broken crockery here. Dean stares at the wedding ring he has palmed, before slipping it into his jeans pocket and heading out the door. “The only thing we had in common,” Ms. McCulloch writes, “is a desire not to hurt each other’s feelings.”

But it’s not her own relationship that the author scrutinizes here. She’s far more interested in the marriages of both sets of parents, as well as the contrast between the McCulloch and the Jackson families’ lives — if you will, high WASP versus apple pie values. Ms. McCulloch, former managing editor of The Paris Review, deploys an impressive knack for characterization when boring into her subject, an instinct for summoning up personality with precise details. Those powers are particularly reserved for her mother, the former Patricia Robineau of Coconut Grove, Fla. As an old-style Southern matriarch, Pat ruled with an iron hand and took the family’s exalted position in society to heart, a latter-day Scarlett O’Hara determined to prevail even as her Tara burned to the ground. 

In descriptions of her mother, Ms. McCulloch encourages readers to judge Pat as harshly as she has. However, if she’s not your mother, it’s hard not to find her kind of hilarious. A dyed-in-the-wool WASP, Pat was irked by those who used words such as “folks” to mean people, or “drapes” for curtains. She brandished her British or French accent with those she considered in her employ, which might have been anyone at any time. Her subject was “invariably men,” which she pronounced “maaahhhn,” using the Social Register as her GPS to determine their standing. Her cigarette smoking alone constituted a language, claims the author in a delightful descriptive passage. The “indignant inhale, the agitated exhale” over the phone, for example, announced a need to vent. 

“You know I read these things and I just want to throw up,” Pat said in one such call, after receiving the Jackson family’s newsy Christmas letter. Others might agree, though unlike Pat they would be loath to say so out loud. But at the end of the day, Pat was the sort of mother who had at one time stayed up all night gossiping with her teenage daughters — in other words, a hoot to be with when she chose.

Though Ms. McCulloch’s father rarely draws a sober breath in this reminiscence, she paints him far more affectionately. As the author glancingly explains, her father’s life of relative leisure was made possible through a happy merger of utility and railway fortunes. “He was by all accounts a shy boy,” she writes of him with sympathy, “growing up in impersonal and joyless luxury.” As an adult, John pursued his passions of travel and languages with feckless concentration, always looking for opportunities to summon up “his best Yoruba” and connect with locals. 

John’s legacy was to teach his daughters not to expect too much, as he had apparently succeeded in doing himself. His relationship with the three girls feels especially tender in the description of them all together in the library after school watching the soap “Dark Shadows” — or when he barks like a seal in restaurants for their express amusement. After his death, John lives on in imaginative stories he had written about an octopus named Franklin, a kind of alter ego. With their impish charm and humor, the stories might be publishable if Franklin didn’t employ his tentacles to down eight glasses of Scotch, one right after the other.

For all their foibles, or perhaps because of them, the McCullochs are clearly interesting. It’s easy to see, however, why Jeanne might have looked to the Jacksons as a safe haven from which to launch an adult life. With their pick-up ice hockey games and lobster bakes, the Jacksons appear to be predictably happy, until it all comes tumbling down. “You gotta try everything,” Dean’s father, Ray, was fond of saying, including apparently a turn with a younger woman in his office. When his wife, Helen, is incapable of responding with more than a whimper, you’ll wish she had a little more of Pat’s backbone and style. 

There is much wisdom in this memoir — “like alcoholism, despair is an equal-opportunity condition,” Ms. McCulloch writes of a neighbor’s suicide, “and the daily human struggle to escape knows no boundaries of wealth or class.” Spare phrases stand out for the larger stories they tell. “We ate lobster, tearing at the bright bodies,” calls up a precise scene instantly, as does “mothers in their brightly colored shifts, hair frosted silvery.” In a description of Main Street in Camden, Me., at Christmas, the author gets at the essence of small-town living in a throwaway line:

“Mr. Foul Shot,” a man yelled across the street at Dean while the couple were shopping, “back in the flesh!” Asleep in his bed in New York City, Dean mimed the shot that made him a hometown legend, as a way, the author imagines, of calming himself. He craved the kind of simpler life he came from rather than the one they were headed toward as a couple.

“We live on such a perilous dune. All of this could go, just like that,” Pat would say as a storm approached, snapping her fingers. In retrospect, Ms. McCulloch wonders if her mother hadn’t been referring specifically to houses like their own, founded on an ancestral notion of family legacy. In a memoir about loss, the final blow comes when “economics and other exigencies” forced the family to put the house on the market. 

One day, gazing up from the beach, as a real estate agent showed the house, Ms. McCulloch and her sisters saw the “shock jock” radio personality Howard Stern “poised” above her mother’s prized geraniums on the Juliet balcony outside her bedroom. If ever there was a sign that the “sheen, the glow, the mythic glamour” of their young lives was over, surely this was it. Her father would have been amused, and her mother, mercifully gone by then, absolutely horrified. 

Ellen T. White, former managing editor at the New York Public Library, is the author of “Simply Irresistible,” a book about history’s great romantic women. She lives in Springs.

Jeanne McCulloch lives part time on Shelter Island. She will read from “All Happy Families” at BookHampton in East Hampton on Friday, Sept. 7, at 4 p.m